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A bull's eye on seniors

  • CHRIS PARKER/TIMES NEWS Navy veteran Richard McGinley, 73, of Lehighton, holds the "sweepstakes" check he received in the mail.
    CHRIS PARKER/TIMES NEWS Navy veteran Richard McGinley, 73, of Lehighton, holds the "sweepstakes" check he received in the mail.
Published November 27. 2009 05:00PM

When retired Navy veteran Richard McGinley opened his mail one recent day, he was surprised to find a $4,700 check enclosed in a typed letter. The letter stated it was from Southern Trust Financial Inc., Canada, and said he had won $250,000 as the "second prize winner in the second category of the USA Mega (under the international sweepstake [sic]) draw held on July 16, 2009."

The letter, full of misspellings, said the check was to pay the taxes on his winnings.

"I finally won something," McGinley thought to himself when he first opened the letter. "I enter a lot of sweepstakes."

But as the Lehighton man read further, suspicion dawned. The misspellings, the amount of taxes and payment method tipped him off.

"That doesn't sound right. It sounds like they want information. When I cash that check, they want information off that check so they can go into my account and drain it," he said. "Being a veteran, I'm a skeptic anyway."

McGinley went to Jim Thorpe National Bank, where a customer relations officer advised he not cash the check.

"They said they've seen a few of these, and it's a scam," he said.

It wasn't the first time McGinley has been the target of a scam; the same thing happened about six years ago. That time, he turned the matter over to the Pennsylvania Office of the Attorney General.

McGinley's experiences are becoming increasingly common as criminals reach into senior citizens' bank accounts through mail, e-mail and telephone scams.

In addition to sweepstakes frauds like the one tried on McGinley, older people are also being victimized by scams that involve telephone calls from people claiming to be relatives in trouble, get-rich-quick investment schemes, financial information mining and fake drug ruses said Pennsylvania Attorney General spokesman Nils Hagen-Frederiksen.

"Pennsylvania has the third-highest percentage of seniors in the country. Pennsylvania has a large red bull's eye painted on it," he said. "Scammers are after either money or personal information. But if you don't give up either, you'll never be victimized."

One of the most pervasive crimes perpetrated on seniors is a telephone scam that "we refer to as the grandparents' phone scam," Frederiksen said.

The caller poses as an adult grandson or granddaughter, calling to say he or she has run into trouble in Canada and that police are holding them because they don't have enough money to pay for a fine and need money to be wired to them.

The scammers work in pairs, with the young-sounding person making the call.

"When you get a call from a young person who says 'Hi Grandmom, how are you?' you usually mention their name when you respond," Frederiksen said.

Once the grandparent responds, "they quickly turn the phone over to another person, an older-sounding person acting as the 'authority figure.' That person will tell the victim that the 'grandchild' must pay a certain amount and where the victim should wire the money.

"They are simply scam artists who are very good at acting," Frederiksen said. "They are story-tellers. They make their living by talking you out of your money. The good ones can talk you out of just about anything."

Also insidious are the sweepstakes or lottery scams, such as the one McGinley received, he said.

"Their use of official looking documents or checks is targeted at a generation that places more trust in those things," Frederiksen said. "Younger people, who bank online, are more likely to disregard that sort of thing. Seniors are more likely to fall victim to it."

Typically, the scam involves the victim receiving a substantial check, being asked to deposit it and wire money to pay the taxes on the "winnings."

"Never wire transfer money to somebody you do not know for any reason," Frederiksen said. "If the scam artist knows the money is coming, he can intercept it from anywhere in the world."

As more seniors surf the Web, Internet based scams e-mails claiming to be the victim's bank or credit card company, or notifying the victim of having won an international lottery are on the rise, too.

If you get an e-mail from your bank or credit card company asking for any personal information, call the bank or company, getting the phone number from the back of the credit card or from you bank statement, Frederiksen advises.

"If someone asks for your Social Security number or bank account number, it's a scam," he said. "Banks don't do that, credit card companies don't do that scam artists do."

"Legitimate United States lotteries and sweepstakes withhold taxes up front. International contests? It's very difficult to win a prize from lotteries and sweepstakes you haven't entered," Frederiksen said. "If they are asking for money up front, walk away from it."

Also, U.S. law prohibits U.S. citizens from participating in international lotteries.

Not only are seniors at risk of losing money through scams, they could put their lives in danger, as one Penn Forest Township man recently found out when his 84-year-old mother, alone and bored after moving from Texas to Florida, fell victim to Internet predators.

She began to spend a lot of time on the computer, "getting phone calls and e-mails about winning money and other things. When I told her not to respond, she told me she was just bored and having some fun, and not sending them anything. I let it go at that," he said.

But recently, she received a phone call telling her she had won a 2010 BMW and $43,000, and that she needed to pay for the taxes and registration," he said. "Apparently, without our knowledge, she sent them $400 for the registration, but they still wanted a few thousand for the taxes."

Her family warned her it was a scam, but she brushed off the advice and continued to communicate with the callers.

"My nephew tried to intercede, and was threatened by the scammers to stay out of it or he'd find himself in a ditch," the man said.

"My mother continued to get involved to the tune of a $2,000 payment to take possession of the BMW. She was told by the scammer to meet him in front of a K-Mart, with the money, to complete the transaction. Upon learning this, and fearing that my mother might follow through, my family called the police, who ended up picking my mother up in front of the K-Mart as she had been directed. They got her into their car without showing her any ID. They then asked her why she got into the car without asking for identification," he said.

"They said 'Ma'am, if we were not the police, and you got into the car with us, we could have taken your money and possibly killed you.'"

The woman's frightened family immediately had her cell and house phone numbers changed, as well as her e-mail address.

But, the family discovered she had sent money before to people who turned out to be scammers.

"Confusing her and complicating things is that she is English and still has family in England," he said. "She received several e-mails from Barclay's Bank, which is a known English bank, stating that she had money coming to her. It sounded plausible to her, and she responded in the way the scammers were hoping. In addition, as her memory is not as good as it was, she may forget that she has participated in some of these events, and apparently hasn't noticed that she doesn't get any money back.

"My mother is now in the process of moving back to Texas where she has more friends and my younger brother. Hopefully, the fact that she will have people around her may keep her from getting into a situation like this again," he said.

The man said his family will try to continue to monitor his mother's e-mail account and finances to try to protect her from future scams.

In addition to telephone and e-mail and letter scams, seniors also have to be wary of investment scams.

Mary Bach, 65, who lives near Pittsburgh, is an independent consumer advocate who recalled her own experience with attempted investment fraud. She and her husband attended a free dinner seminar they had gotten an invitation in the mail. Suspicious, they invited the man giving the seminar to their home to find out more about the financial product he was peddling.

"He came into our home with no printed matter about the products he was offering. He said 'if you give me $100,000, we can work out the details later," she said. "He wanted us to give him a check for $100,000!"

Bach discovered the man was not licensed to do business in Pennsylvania. She would have had to be 119 years old to reap the benefits of the annuity he was trying to sell her husband.

Bach promptly reported him to the Pennsylvania Securities Commission.

She recommends seniors approached by people selling financial products contact the AARP-sponsored Senior Law Center at 1-877-727-7529 for free advice before signing on the dotted line.

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