Posts Tagged ‘scams’

Beware Of Holiday Scams

This week we offer season-relevant advice from our friends in the Elder Consumer Protection Program at Stetson University College of Law’s Center for Excellence in Elder Law. We share this information with their permission:

Top 5 Holiday Scams

During the holiday season, fraudsters find their way onto the naughty list each year with clever new scams. Consumer authorities warn that the holidays offer fraudsters plenty of opportunities to prey upon unwary consumers. This year, be sure to keep your eye out for these “popular” scams and avoid becoming a victim:

  1. Gift Card Scams. Gift cards can be tampered with, especially in stores with large gift card displays. Try to purchase gift cards straight from the cashier or customer service representative.
  2. Fake Vacation Rentals. Fraudsters will often advertise property they do not own, and use personal information on a bogus rental application to commit identity theft. When booking a vacation rental, use a reputable realtor that you can meet with in person.
  3. Fake Holiday Jobs. Work-from-home job offers may appear to be a good source of extra cash during the holidays. However, if an employer asks you to make substantial payments up front for materials, or asks you for personal or financial information, then you could be a potential scam victim.
  4. Charity Fraud. Not every person asking you for a donation is working for a legitimate charity. Be sure to confirm that the charity exists, and avoid cash donations. Rather donate with a check made payable to the charity.
  5. Internet Shopping Scams. Online merchants may advertise unbeatable prices, but be wary. You may be required to purchase a large quantity of items to get the deal, and what you see may not be what you get. Get information and reviews about the merchant before placing your order.


“Grandma, it’s me and I need your help.” Don’t Be Fooled By This Scam

We have been hearing lately about a scam that targets seniors. You get a telephone call from a number you don’t recognize. When you answer, the person on the other line says: “Grandma, it’s me, and I need your help.” You learn that your grandchild has been detained by the police in another country – Mexico, or maybe somewhere in the Caribbean. Something about an auto accident, perhaps, and unfamiliar laws in the foreign country. Your grandchild needs you to wire him or her money to pay for bail.

Significantly, the grandchild pleads with you not to notify his or her parents, because they’ll be angry. If you note that the grandchild’s voice sounds different, he or she will say that the police broke his or her nose during the course of the arrest. If you ask for a phone number, so you can call back, you’re told that this is an outgoing number at the police station and it’s not possible to call back. There’s no way to contact your grandchild again. You are instructed to go quickly to the bank, withdraw an amount that is usually slightly less than $5,000.00 (any more will attract the government’s attention) and arrange for a wire transfer.

If you have grandchildren you probably love them dearly. We suspect that if you got a call from a grandkid in trouble, you’d spring into action. Any questions you might have about the truthfulness of what you’re being told would be superseded by the stress and anxiety of learning that your grandchild was in serious trouble and needed your help urgently.

We know of several instances lately of our clients (or the parents or other family members of our clients) being targeted by this kind of scam. In one case, the grandmother was at Walmart attempting to wire funds when the store clerk alerted her that this was likely a scam and that she should call the grandchild, or his parent, before wiring any money. In another instance, the scam was discovered earlier in the process because the grandmother was known to her family by a nickname, and not as “Grandma.”  She was immediately suspicious.  But, worryingly, in that case, the person on the other end of the line identified herself using the actual name of a real granddaughter.

Of course it is despicable of scammers to play on a grandparent’s love for their grandchildren. Worse yet, they frighten and alarm their elderly victims. Please, if someone tries to spur you to action by playing on your fears, stop, take a deep breath, and apply a little skepticism before you proceed any further.

Other than health skepticism, what can you do to protect yourself? If this happens to you, ask your caller to recall a pet’s name, or a family vacation spot, or something that only your actual grandchild would know. Be cautious, however — the sophistication of scammers has increased as private details become widely available on the internet. In one case, for example, police reported that the caller knew that the victim they were calling had an identical twin, and even that the victim was two minutes younger than her sister.

What if this happens to a family member? If money has been wired, immediately contact the transfer company. If it has already been picked up it is too late, but even if the money is gone at least the authorities will have one more piece of data to stop future scams and maybe even locate your scammer. Contact the FBI or its Internet Crime Complaint Center to file a report. Unofficial agencies like the Better Business Bureau also track scam information and may be able to make other suggestions.

Worried that something like this might happen to a vulnerable senior in your family? Start by locking down their internet vulnerability — scammers often use e-mail malware to collect information about potential victims. Make sure your family member’s internet use is protected. Caution them about social media — trusting seniors might be inclined to share too much sensitive and personal information online.

Make sure your family member knows to contact you before succumbing to a scammer’s pleas for confidentiality. Maybe you even want to adopt a family code word to signal that any caller is truly a family member. Please don’t inject unnecessary fear into your family member’s life, but make sure they have sufficient skepticism and the comfort to contact you or another family member no matter what a scammer might tell them.

Want to familiarize yourself with the kinds of scams working across the internet and through your neighborhood? Check out the Better Business Bureau’s “Scam Aggregator.” It might amaze, alarm and inform you all at the same time.

Publishers Clearing House Must Cooperate With Iowa Investigation

JUNE 25, 2001 VOLUME 8, NUMBER 52

Sweepstakes solicitations have become a major financial problem for the elderly in America. Thousands of individuals send millions of dollars to promoters of get-rich-quick schemes every year. Spouses and other family members are often powerless to prevent the fleecing of gullible individuals as they send in check after check.

Although it was once easy to distinguish between legitimate business solicitations and outright scams, the distinction becomes less clear with every new example. The most venerable of sweepstakes promoters, Publishers Clearing House, was once respected as a clever and entertaining marketing technique. In the past three years even Publishers Clearing House has been investigated or sued by more than half the states for its business practices.

By law no purchase can be required before entry into a sweepstakes drawing. The promoter is prohibited from suggesting that a purchase will increase the chance of winning. Mass mailings often obscure that fact, however, and vulnerable seniors purchase thousands of dollars of useless items in a vain attempt to increase their sweepstakes odds.

That is why Iowa’s Attorney General Thomas Miller began a review of Publishers Clearing House. He found, for example, that one 83-year-old woman bought a number of videotapes and CDs (though she had neither a VCR player nor a CD player) and subscribed to over 40 magazines. His office issued a subpoena to Publishers Clearing House, seeking the names and amounts of purchases for any Iowan who spent over $200 during a two-year period.

Publishers Clearing House objected, saying that the cost of responding would be high (estimates were that the cost would be about $23,000), that much of the information had already been provided, and that the information was a “trade secret” and not subject to disclosure. The Attorney General filed suit in the Iowa courts seeking to enforce his subpoena.

The Iowa Supreme Court upheld the subpoena. The Court noted that Publishers Clearing House had acknowledged earning at least $1.9 million from Iowa residents during the questioned period, and decided that a $23,000 expense was small in comparison to that revenue.

Publishers Clearing House had provided lists of those who had purchased more than $1,000 in goods and services. They had not indicated the actual amount spent—instead breaking the list into categories and lumping all those spending more than $2,500 into a single group. That, ruled the Court, was not enough; Publishers Clearing House must disclose the information requested by the Iowa Attorney General. State ex rel. Miller v. Publishers Clearing House, May 31, 2001.

The Iowa Supreme Court’s ruling does not mean Publishers Clearing House must change its practices, but at least the Attorney General has the power to investigate whether the company is intentionally taking advantage of vulnerable seniors. Meanwhile investigations and lawsuits continue in a number of other states.

Home Repair Scam Leads To Twenty-Five Year Jail Sentence


Virginia Detlefs, 81, was living in her own home in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, when she first met Mark Olsen. In September, 1996, Mr. Olsen contacted Ms. Detlefs and offered to evaluate her home to see if it needed any repairs.

With the help of his live-in girlfriend Jennifer Wagner, Mr. Olsen ran a home improvement business. He also had a substantial cocaine habit to support. Ms. Detlefs was exactly the kind of “client” Mr. Olsen preferred—she was, as the Iowa Supreme Court later noted, “susceptible to suggestion and influence.”

Mr. Olsen’s initial appraisal of Ms. Detlefs’ home was that it needed finishing work on the wood trim and floors, carpet cleaning and window washing. He estimated that the job would cost $6,000 and Ms. Detlefs authorized him to begin the work.

That contract was just Mr. Olsen’s way of getting his foot in the door. Over the next nineteen months he and his girlfriend persuaded Ms. Detlefs to pay them more than $200,000 for various home improvement jobs. In fact, however, the couple performed almost no actual work on Ms. Detlefs’ home.

Iowa, as it happens, was the first and only state (so far) to adopt a version of the Model Ongoing Criminal Conduct Act initially proposed in 1993 by the national President’s Commission on Model State Drug Laws. The Act is similar to laws in a number of states (including Arizona) which prohibit racketeering, but the new law is more comprehensive.

Mr. Olsen was convicted and sentenced to a term of incarceration not to exceed twenty-five years, and ordered to make restitution to Ms. Detlefs. He appealed his conviction and sentence.

Mr. Olsen’s argument on appeal was not that he was innocent of any wrongdoing. Instead he argued that just operating a two-person scam did not amount to “ongoing criminal conduct.” The Iowa Supreme Court disagreed, and his conviction and sentence were upheld. State v. Olsen, October 11, 2000.

Perhaps more interesting than the result in Mr. Olsen’s case is how his activities came to the attention of the authorities in the first place. One of the persistent problems in dealing with financial exploitation of the elderly is that abuse usually takes place in secret. Frequently there is no one involved enough in the victim’s life to be aware of the exploitation.

In Ms. Detlefs’ case an alert neighbor saved her from further losses. Noticing that Mr. Olsen and Ms. Wagner visited Ms. Detlefs’ home regularly for short periods, and that no repair work seemed to be undertaken, the neighbor asked Ms. Detlefs to show him her check register. When the neighbor saw the pattern of payments to Mr. Olsen and Ms. Wagner, he called police. Once investigators were involved Mr. Olsen’s conviction was assured.

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