Everyone is trying to make ends meet in tough economic times, but some scheme to find unscrupulous ways to get ahead.
"There's one way people are looking to earn an income. There are people trying to scam seniors out of their hard earned money," Harriette Trevino told a room of 75 Monroe Senior Center patrons Tuesday.
She said senior citizens were ripped off to the tune of $2.9 billion in 2011 and that only 25% of the victims report it. Oftentimes they feel embarrassed, ashamed of being duped and a number are afraid their adult children will put them in a senior home.
Trevino, the community service representative with Home Instead Senior Care in Trumbull, gave the presentation entitled "Protecting Seniors from Fraud" as the guest speaker at the center's luncheon.
Among the scams Trevino spoke of, a man claiming to be from a paving company knocked on a homeowner's door and told him he had extra asphalt in his truck that wouldn't be any good tomorrow, and offered to lay a fresh coat on his driveway for $100 cash. The resident later found that the new blacktop was actually black paint.
In another scam, a stranger offered to help a man shovel his walk and asked him to open his garage so he could grab a shovel too. After getting help shoveling his walkway, the resident noticed that all of his tools were gone.
But not all scams are face-to-face.
There's the notification of the $40 Australian Powerball win Monroe resident Donald Auger received in his mailbox. Of course, he only had 14 days to send a $29.95 fee via money order or he'd lose the jackpot.
Auger didn't fall for it.
"Anytime you're asked to send money to get money it's a fraud," he told fellow senior center patrons. "State police told me that."
After Trevino's presentation, Monroe Police Det. Kelly McFarland told diners about the most common scams police have investigated in Monroe and answered questions.
Robert Massafra, who runs the Home Instead Senior Care franchise with his wife Sharon, said, "We do a lot of different programs on safety for the home and fraud prevention."
Home Instead provides services allowing senior citizens to continue to live in their home independently.
"It's really important because as many times as we give that message, seniors are still getting scammed," said Barbara Yeager, director of the Monroe Senior Center. "The more we get that message out the better."
Seniors that do not attend events like Tuesday's often hear it from family and friends who did, according to Yeager.
"My mother lives in Maine," Yeager said. "I told her about one fraud prevention presentation we had here and she said, 'I got a call from someone who said I'm your grandson. I was ready.'"
Six Seconds of Silence
If you are scammed, Trevino said reporting it to law enforcement and the Better Business Bureau allows investigators to notify the public of the latest scams to protect others from falling prey.
Older generations of Americans were brought up to be polite, Trevino said, a trait con artists use to string seniors along on the phone without being interrupted. "And their arguments are listened to," she said.
Sometimes they try to guilt you into staying on the phone by claiming to be raising money for a worthy cause or they pose as law enforcement officials and claim your grandchild had gotten into trouble and will be arrested unless you send a money order right away, according to Trevino.
Criminals can also use computer programs to mask their phone number to render Caller I.D. ineffective.
If you pick up the phone and hear six seconds of silence, Trevino said to hang up because it's probably a robo-call that will continue to call the numbers of those who pick up.
Trevino said the best way to expose a con artist is to turn things around and question the caller. "What company are you with?" "What's your name?"
"If it's a scammer, they hang up," she said.
Reading the Obits
Police always caution people against giving away personal information over the phone, but Trevino said there are other ways criminals can learn about you. One of the best ways is by reading the obituary page.
An obituary has the name of the widowed spouse and relatives and where they live, as well as schools the deceased attended and where they worked. Trevino said criminals can use this information to find common ground with their mark and build a relationship of trust.
Trevino said they plant the seeds of trust so you'll drop your guard when they asking you for money for a business venture or a loan.
No Fairy Tale Ending
Scams can affect everyone. In fact, Trevino revealed that her 89-year-old father has squandered tens of thousands of dollars from scams. Despite interventions from his adult children, Trevino said the former entrepreneur has a burning desire to "be a player again."
"It is a shocking and tragic situation," she said. "He's at the top of the 'Sucker List.'"
Trevino said criminals actually have a "sucker list" with the names of people and how many times they've fallen for scams. By being on the list, she said her father gets so much junk mail that the Post Office is recommending a second mailbox. His phone also rings throughout the day.
"This is not to embarrass my father," Trevino said. "He is 'the smartest man in the room' and still has all his marbles, but not sound judgement on finances anymore."
This continues to be a struggle in Trevino's family.
She said, "I wish I could give you a fairy tale ending."