Monroe has had its share of scam artists. Just last month a woman posing as a U.S. Social Security Administration employee tricked an 84-year-old Pastors Walk resident into giving out her Social Security number and banking account information. Earlier in the month, a Pepper Street woman tipped police off to a UK Mega Millions Lottery scheme.
During her 17 years as Senior Community Specialist at People's United Bank, Angela DeLeon has heard it all.
"They're trained in the art of persuasion, so they can get you to give any information they want," DeLeon said of identity thieves. "They sound very, very nice. They sound official, but nice. They want your hard earned money and they’re going to be very sweet to get into your pockets."
International scams are common, but amid harsh economic times, DeLeon says the threat of domestic fraud is growing.
"So many people out of work are educated and computer savvy ... and they're desperate," DeLeon said. "Their unemployment is running out and they're scared. They want to support their family and some are willing to break the law to do it."
While DeLeon does community outreach to protect senior citizens from fraud, she said no one is safe from being targeted. Social networking sites pose a particular danger to younger people.
"People are on Facebook all the time and they give out all their information," DeLeon said. "They have no idea how an unscrupulous person can take what they put on Facebook to their advantage."
DeLeon used an example of someone posting that her family is on vacation at Disney, along with a photo of her three children.
"Guess what? The house is empty," she said of what else the post tells people. "Why should they know what your kids look like and how many live in the house?"
Many people only post Facebook information to their friends, but DeLeon said, "You don't know which friend is sharing your information with somebody else."
'They’re Very Creative'
One popular old scam is to call an elderly person posing as her grandson. The criminal tells her how he's been arrested in Mexico and needs quick cash wired via Western Union to pay for bail and court fees.
Now that people are wise to the ruse, DeLeon says criminals make many variations of the same scheme. In one example, your son-in-law had a car accident in Canada and officers found drugs. He's in jail and needs bail.
"They put him on the phone and his voice is different," DeLeon said. "'Oh, I smashed my nose in the accident,' the caller will explain."
Many criminals do their homework before setting the wheels of a scam in motion.
"Now they can find names in the obituaries," DeLeon said. "They want to let you know that they know your neighborhood. They can go right on the computer and zero in on a bush in front of your house. You can get so much information on the computer."
Some criminals even spend money on background checks to find useful information on their intended victim, according to DeLeon.
"If you have to pay fifty bucks to make $3,000, so be it, they’ll do it," she said. "People have to be cautious."
A Teller is Stealing
Among the most common schemes out there right now, DeLeon says someone will pose as a bank manager and tell the intended victim their bank is trying to catch one of its tellers, who they believe is stealing money.
"You are one of our loyal customers and we want you to help us. Would you be willing to do this?" DeLeon says the criminal asks.
"Of course they want to help," she said.
The victim is told to go to a particular teller and withdraw $500, which he is assured are marked bills.
"I will wait in the parking lot," the criminal says. "Hand it to me. I will put it directly into your account. This will help us to investigate our teller. I'll have a blue suit on with a red tie. Let's get this person so she doesn't steal money from our bank again."
Of course, DeLeon says the man in the parking lot takes off with the cash.
Awareness is Key
When it comes to combating fraud, DeLeon says awareness is key. To that end, she is organizing a uniform fashion show at the Monroe Senior Center on April 23 to protect seniors from home invasions.
"Models" wearing uniforms of utility companies like CL&P will be seen on the catwalk, giving residents a good look at what the real uniforms and identification looks like.
One way to get into people's homes is for a criminal to pose as a utility company employee and lure homeowners into their backyards, while an accomplice waiting in the car goes in the house and robs them.
To avoid what happened to the Pastors Walk woman, who was talked into giving out her Social Security number and banking information, DeLeon points out there is no financial institution you do business with that does not already have your account information.
Sometimes criminals will pose as bankers after a natural disaster like Hurricane Katrina and claim all of its account information was destroyed in the storm, so they need to rebuild their database.
But in this day and age, DeLeon said banks like People's have backup systems in different parts of the country to guard against natural disasters.
Of shopping over the phone, DeLeon said, "Don't ever put your credit card number out there, unless you initiate the call."
DeLeon will continue to hammer home ways people can protect themselves from financial crimes in the programs People's United is a part of.
"Awareness is key. That's the important thing," she said. "Like your mother said, 'Don't go near the stove. It's hot.' Be aware or you'll get hurt."