The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

January 22, 2013

Agencies gear up to help elderly avoid scam artists

By MARK TODD - mtodd@starbeacon.com
Star Beacon

— Con artists from across the country and around the world are trying hard to rob Ashtabula County residents of their savings and identities.

Sometimes they succeed, like the Geneva Township woman who lost thousands of dollars to scammers who promised her contest winnings late last year in return for a “tax payment” made up front. And sometimes the crooks reach a tougher cookie — like Sheriff William Johnson.

The county’s top lawman for two decades, Johnson is not immune to scammers. Johnson remembers a call he got from a “banking official” who said his account may have been breached and needed his Social Security number to double-check bank records.

“I told him I don’t give out any personal or financial information over the phone,” Johnson said.

The man persisted, modifying his request.

“He asked me for just the last four numbers,” Johnson said. “I told him I would do him one better. I said, “Give me the numbers and I’ll tell you if they’re right. Click! He hung up right away.”

That call didn’t go well for the scammer, but odds are he was back on the phone a few minutes later, peddling his phony story to another person.

Scams are nothing new to the area. They pop up occasionally in police blotters, often from people who tried to cash a cashier’s checks they got in the mail — only to find out it’s fake.

Most of the victims or intended victims are elderly, probably because their generation is more trusting of strangers and less sure of today’s technology, police said. In response, local senior agencies are gearing up to educate their clients about the pitfalls of telephone scammers.

“We help them with that all the time,” said Lucille Hensley, Ashtabula Senior Center executive director. “We try to educate them not to give information over the phone. We also advise them about false donations.”

The Seniors Together program, based in the Conneaut Human Resources Center, also regularly counsels its members about telephone thieves, said Marilyn Telega, executive director. “Luckily, none of our seniors have had such a problem,” she said.

Still, to head off problems, Telega routinely shares information from Better Business Bureau bulletins and special crime alerts, she said. “If anything really stands out and needs to be covered, we’ll do that several times,” she said.

Also, police are invited to meetings to discuss scam artists and prevention techniques, Telega said. “Officers will come in to reinforce what our seniors already know,” she said.

The horrible impact scammers can make was illustrated last year, when county deputies learned of an 87-year-old Geneva Township woman told she had won more than a millions dollars and a new car. She was told to send $900 to cover taxes and the auto title, deputies said. Ensuing calls from the people, some eventually traced to Jamaica, eventually elicited the woman’s personal banking information.

While older folks may seem the primary target of scammers, younger residents get their share of attention, too, Johnson said. “(Con artists) also look for anyone who pays on-line,” he said.

Johnson regularly speaks to groups about telephone con artists, and his advice is always the same.

“You should provide no information on the phone, no matter what,” he said. “And if someone calls and says they want to protect you, tell them you want to meet them in person.”