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THE SAFETY ZONE | JERRY HICKS

Scammers Set Sights on Seniors

May 24, 1999|JERRY HICKS

The telephone caller says he's from your bank and wants your help in catching a crooked employee; but first he just needs your bank and credit card account numbers.

How quickly would you hang up on this turkey? Sadly, some people don't. They blindly provide all information needed for these scam artists to rip off their savings or run up their credit cards.

And the most vulnerable target? Senior citizens, say the people at the California Department of Consumer Affairs.

"Many seniors were raised during a time when you did business with a handshake," said Kim Canevari, a Consumer Affairs spokeswoman. "They've spent their lives being trusting."

Because May is National Older Americans Month, officials at Consumer Affairs wanted to do something to help alert seniors to the growing danger of telemarketers and others with crooked sales pitches. They put together a package called Senior Scambusters Kit, and it's free.

I asked for a kit to see if it provides anything useful. It does: tips on how to handle contractors, hearing-aid sellers, medicine marketers, and con artists who say you've just won a grand vacation. The kit includes plenty of telephone numbers you can call for advice on scammers or to lodge complaints against them.

Some scammers are quick hitters, said Debbie Mahdi, executive director of the Better Business Bureau of Southern California, based in Placentia. They nail you for a $25 contribution to a nonexistent cause and move on. But the tragic cases, she said, are those in which seniors turn over thousands of dollars, often most of their savings.

"So many seniors were taught to be polite on the telephone," Mahdi said, "so it's out of character for them to stand up to these scammers who call."

One highly successful scam the Better Business Bureau has faced recently: people selling fake vitamins by bulk.

"Some seniors desperately want the miracle drug that will keep them young," Mahdi said.

Problem is, too many scammers go undetected because seniors are too embarrassed that they've been taken, so they don't turn them in.

"Sometimes we don't learn about a scam until six months later," she said. "And by then it's too late."

The state's Senior Scambusters Kit might at least warn you what dangers are lurking out there. Such as:

* Someone at your door says you need a new roof, and he just happens to be in the neighborhood.

Beware of any caller who uses the line "just happened to be in your neighborhood."

* You're told you've won a sweepstakes; just call a 900 number to find out more.

Yes, you did win--a dollar. And the 900 call costs you close to $100.

* You're asked to donate to charity.

Ask the caller to mail you information first. If the caller says that's not possible, it's a scam.

Telemarketing has become so prevalent, the seniors-only living complex Leisure World in Seal Beach holds quarterly meetings to warn residents about scams. Bank officials, police and prosecutors come in to explain how scams work. Yet, I'm told that scam complaints still take up a major part of its security force's time. One official there said:

"As long as you have thousands of senior citizens gathered in one place, all with a life savings, you're going to have some people vulnerable to these rip-off places."

By the way, if you want a Senior Scambusters Kit for yourself or a family member, write to DCA Publications, 401 S Street, Suite 100, Sacramento, CA 95814. Prompt delivery is promised.

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