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Local seniors get savvy about scammers

By Staff | Nov 4, 2015

Con artists are always looking for a mark. That’s why it’s important to be on the lookout for them before they spot you.

The Lee County Sheriff’s Office, the Lee Elder Abuse Prevention Partnership and the Florida Crime Prevention Association held an educational event Tuesday at the Broadway Palm Dinner Theater to teach people of all ages how to protect their wallets, bank accounts and identities.

People learned the latest scams have siphoned consumers out of billions, including attempts by thieves to redirect Social Security benefits and file income tax returns using personal identifying information, among other things.

Stacey Payne, community relations corrector for the LCSO, said every year the department provides an educational component to its outreach for seniors and service providers.

“We teach people about identity theft, also benefits hacking, which has become a growing problem. Seniors are finding out their Social Security isn’t going into their account,” Payne said.

Payne said identity theft has expanded to include the deceased and children, and that the LCSO averages 540 calls a month into the fraud line, which is a small fraction of those who are actually receiving these calls from scammers, as many are never reported.

Joseph Bermudez, a sergeant with the Miami Police Department, said over time, the more traditional scams, such as the lottery and IRS ones, have become more refined.

“The thing about frauds is that they evolve. When you think you have a handle on it, it becomes something different,” Bermudez said. “You have to keep current with what all the frauds are.”

Florida is the No. 1 state for identity theft complaints six years running, according to the Federal Trade Commission, and Cape Coral/Fort Myers is 11th in the country in identity theft.

Scams don’t tend to hit specific age groups, and ID theft hits an equal number of people between the ages of 20 and 60, with those who are 19 and under a growing target.

“There’s a growing number of thefts of Social Security numbers on children. They get Social Security numbers for tax purposes at birth and they’re not being used for years and not being monitored,” Bermudez said.

With the information they get from stealing mail, hacking, pickpocketing, phishing and skimming, crooks can open new credit cards, open bank accounts and write bad checks, apply for loans for cars and boats and even totally assume your identity.

Bermudez suggested checking your bank and credit card statement, invest in a safe and shredder and check your credit regularly.

“The big problem is there’s a lack of knowledge and they need to be informed of the possible scams there are,” Bermudez said. “Many folks want to get rich quick and they get e-mails that they won lotteries and send money in for processing, but didn’t enter.”

Also speaking were Beth Schell, fraud specialist with the LCSO, who discussed Social Security and benefits fraud. Medicare fraud had become an increasing problem. Chip Wells discussed investment fraud and how if it seems too good to be true, it usually is.

Lee Bailey of Fort Myers is a caregiver for her mother who has been scammed previously by e-mail. She said learning the scams is vital.

“I dealt with the scams through endless months trying to intercept mail from companies telling her she’s going to make all this money,” Bailey said. “This is great. It’s all really good information that companies can use.”

Scott Strachan of Abby Services, which provides caregiving services, also found the program informative, and said with a senior population in Florida, it’s no wonder the state is No. 1 in identity theft.

“I’m already aware of a lot of these things. Just for the caregivers we work with, it’s important to be aware of it,” Strachan said. “They’re going to be the ones in someone’s home and they need to tell their loved one ‘Don’t do that.”