Scammers are back, and they’re smoother than ever

Tax preparation can be an opportunity to find evidence of elder fraud or financial abuse. (submitted photo)

The late spring has seen a sudden resurgence in scam artists, and many of them prey on seniors who are home to answer their phones and doors and may be too trusting of strangers.

The Minnesota Department of Commerce and AARP report that seniors nationwide lose an estimated $2.5 billion -- that’s billion -- every year to fraud and other financial abuse.

When you don’t need home improvement

“The most popular that’s brewing is home-improvement and tree-trimming scams,” Roseville Police detective Jennifer Engh says. “These people knock on your door, point out something that’s ‘wrong’ with your house or yard and give you an estimate that’s very overpriced compared to what you’d get from a local contractor.

“People who pay that amount often find the work isn’t done properly or at all.”

In past cases in Roseville, Engh says, “roofing crews” hired off the street “just went up on the roof and sprayed markings on it to make it look like they’d done the work.”

Right now, Engh says, there’s a group traveling the east-metro area who’ve hit a number of suburban neighborhoods. She said Oakdale has tracked up to $24,000 in losses from six individuals who paid the roaming crew to do work.

Key warning signs:

• the fact a supposed contracting firm is approaching you soliciting work instead of you contacting them

• out-of-state license plates or IDs

• a lack of a Minnesota or local license or a line about “it’s back at the office” if they’re asked

“If you think you need something done, call a local company and get a number of bids,” Engh says. “Don’t just go with someone who shows up at your door.”

And if you do think you’ve been a victim, police want to know. It’s hard to track some of these rackets down, as they move quickly from city to city and state to state, but the more reports and information people can offer, the better.

“If you do feel you’ve become a victim or have overpaid for a service, we want to know.  If people can get license plates, descriptions of the people or business cards -- anything that helps identify them -- we at least have leads,” Engh says.

‘Grandma, I’m in trouble!’

Engh works investigations into fraud and forgery and adds that seniors need to be aware -- and adult children may need to remind them -- that scammers can also reach them by phone.

One of the cruelest hoaxes: a grandchild who’s supposedly in trouble -- in jail, in the hospital or marooned without an ID or funds in another country -- and needs thousands of dollars wired immediately.

In the Internet age, “it’s very easy to find out what your grandchildren’s names are,” Engh says.

A caller may also pose as the grandchild, sounding like a teary, desperate 20-something: “Grandma? I need help!” If Grandma, caught off guard, says “Is that you, Alyssa?” then the caller starts to spin her tale of woe.

“They’re very smooth talkers,” Engh says. “If their voice doesn’t sound right or you question them more closely they’ll say ‘My jaw was broken in the accident’ or some other reason.”

Other variations: someone calling saying the grandchild is being held for ransom or is in jail. One shaken 82-year-old was told her grandson would be thrown into a holding cell in an Australian jail and raped by other inmates if she didn’t wire $5,000 immediately.

Call police

Michelle Stark, Oakdale Police community affairs officer, says seniors are perennial victims of lottery and prize-winning phone and email scams, and warns that if someone claims they need money in order to “mail your prize” or release your winnings, it’s a scam.

“We’re seeing more of them every year,” Stark says. “There’s increased dollar values they ask for and how you pay runs the gamut from wire to any form of cashier’s check and even personal checks.”

Stark also asks people to call police to help defeat the fraudsters. “If people continue to report it and we have more information, the likelihood that we’ll fit a piece into the puzzle and find them is increased.”

Above all, seniors should be warned that everyone who knocks on the door or calls the house may be trustworthy, and they shouldn’t stay on the line, sign a contract or hand over money without discussing it with trusted family or friends.

“If they’re getting solicitations by phone or email, they should always check their sources,” Stark says. “If it just doesn’t seem right or too good to be true it probably is.”

— Holly Wenzel


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