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Elderly battle scam artists

March 23, 2009|By DAVE McMILLION

WILLIAMSPORT -- Talk to residents at Homewood at Williamsport about exploitation issues involving senior citizens and they jump at the chance to tell stories about their experiences.

They talk about how they are asked for sensitive information such as Social Security numbers, how people try to lure them into business deals that don't seem to be on the level and how pushy phone solicitors can be when they try to decline offers.

Officials at Homewood at Williamsport, a 28-acre continuing care retirement community at 16505 Virginia Ave., said they can help residents deal with exploitation problems because of the support structure there.

About 10 Homewood residents talked to a Herald-Mail reporter about senior exploitation during a regular "Hot Topics" meeting at the retirement community recently. In addition to talking about the issue in general, they traded tips with each other about ways to protect themselves from exploitation.

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One way they mentioned involves shredding sensitive information that unscrupulous people could use to their advantage.

About six months ago, a paper shredder was installed in Homewood's community center so residents can shred documents that contain sensitive material.

"I do feel like it's secure (here)," said Eleanor Cochran, who moved into Homewood at Williamsport after her husband died.

Local Social Services officials and police said there has been an increase in the number of financial exploitation cases involving seniors.

One Homewood resident, who did not want to be identified, said she was phoned repeatedly about an offer for a new warranty on her car. The resident said she finally agreed to the deal and was told it was going to cost $300 a year.

The next thing she knew, the woman said, a $750 charge for the warranty showed up on her credit card statement. Believing it was a scam, the woman said she called the people involved and they agreed to credit her account, but only for $550.

The woman said she was told the company would keep the remaining $200 to buy out the contract for the warranty.

"They still call me. I just tell them I'm not interested and I hang up," the woman said.

Homewood resident Marilyn Washburn said she has been bothered by ploys, including one in which she received an e-mail that said she needed to forward some updated information for her AOL account. The e-mail asked for her Social Security number.

"Who knows who was going to receive that information?" she asked.

Don Lochary recalled receiving a phone call a couple of years ago from someone who offered him a deal on the purchase of "copper shares."

The caller told Lochary that a delivery service truck would be at his place the next day to pick up a check if he wanted to get in on the offer.

Lochary said the callers on such deals are persistent.

"It seems they want to argue with you," he said.

Shelby Vaughn, activities director at Homewood, said exploitation problems often arise with the elderly because they tend to be friendly and are eager to help.

Sometimes, older people fall for deals offered to them over the phone because they are lonely, said Ronald Wayne Taylor, president of SALT (Seniors and Law Enforcement Together) Council of Washington County.

"It's a friendly voice on the telephone," Taylor said.

Sometimes, that friendly voice is an unscrupulous telemarketer who knows how to work a target, Taylor said.

Such callers try to build rapport with senior citizens and might even pick up on sounds they hear in the background -- for instance, a cat meowing, Taylor said. Then the caller might talk about a cat he owns to make the senior citizen feel comfortable about the conversation.

The caller's next step is to make a pitch for money or a sale, Taylor said.

Officials who are familiar with exploitation of the elderly agreed there are many more pitfalls for older people to deal with than there were years ago.

Lt. Mark Knight of the Washington County Sheriff's Department said that as they grow older, people already have plenty to worry about, such as keeping their finances straight.

"Add to the equation where someone wants to steal from them and it becomes a confusing situation," Knight said.

John Kenney, program manager of Adult Services for the Washington County Department of Social Services, said an area of concern is the Internet, which can be "a minefield for those scammers."

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