Experts: preparation, awareness key to avoiding scams

  • Oscar Halpert<br>Enterprise editor
  • Monday, March 3, 2008 12:05pm

Be prepared and protect yourself from identity theft and fraud.

That’s the advice from Halley Hupp, deputy prosecuting attorney with the Snohomish County Prosecutor’s Office.

For seniors, a big part of that protection is making sure there are two sets of trusted eyes watching over them.

Often, someone close – a friend or family member – keeps tabs on an elderly person’s purse strings when that person is no longer able to manage their own affairs.

But it’s important, Hupp said, to have another set of trusted eyes nearby, just in case.

“A common flaw in embezzlement and elder abuse is there’s no one keeping an eye out,” Hupp said.

Perpetrators of fraud – “scammers,” or “scam artists” – take advantage of the elderly for many reasons. Mostly, Hupp said, it’s because the elderly “tend to be more trusting or gullible, either because it was a generation they came from or because of age.”

Taking advantage of the elderly is nothing new, Hupp said. But in the Internet age, it’s even easier for crooks to find their elderly prey, she said.

The Internet, Hupp said, is a tool that’s “wonderful” and “terrible.”

“If you want to send out a letter to all your friends and family at once, you can,” he said. “And now, if you want to send out a fraudulent letter to thousands, you can.”

One of the most common scams involves investment fraud.

This year, AARP, the nonprofit membership organization for people age 50 and over, teamed up with the state Department of Financial Institutions to create a traveling workshop called InvestWise.

That workshop came to Lynnwood in May.

Some recommendations for seniors when dealing with a potential investment opportunity:

• Protect your personal information. Never give your personal information to an investment professional without first conducting research. Beware of cold calls or unsolicited mail.

• Take your time. Never make a snap decision about investing.

• Ask questions. Find out as much information as you can about the product, the person selling it and the firm or company they represent. Then verify that information.

• Do your homework. Never rely solely on the saleperson’s word.

• Beware of free offers.

In 2006, the Washington AARP chapter did a study. The study found that victims of financial fraud “actually did better on standard financial literacy questions than non-victims,” said AARP state director Doug Shadel.

He said fraud against the elderly is on the rise. Though there are many reasons for the increase, Shadel said the fact that more people are grappling with financing their own retirements plays right into the hands of people with bad intentions.

“Just in terms of American society, there is this tectonic shift in terms of who’s responsible for your financial future,” he said, noting that defined benefit plans that cover employees for life — the traditional pension — have virtually vanished.

“There’s a shift from corporations taking care of your money to individual investors,” he said.

Often, seniors are afraid they’ll look foolish if they ask a lot of questions, said Amy Benson, quality assurance coordinator with Lynnwood’s Home Instead Senior Care office. The company provides non-medical in-home care to the elderly.

“They’ve worked hard all of their lives for that little money that’s locked away,” she said. “If someone’s convincing enough to make them think they can double that, triple that, that’s inviting.”

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