Beware Scams Targeting Seniors and the Unwary

by Elizabeth Q. Boehmcke, Esq.

We had a client come to the office recently with a concern. This person had received a letter purporting to be from a well-known sweepstakes company, enclosing a check, and indicating to the client that they had won a substantial prize. However, in order to claim the prize, they were supposed to deposit the check and then send an amount equal to about half the amount of the check as a “fee” and to allow the company to obtain the routing information for the client’s account. The letter promised that the remainder of the prize would be automatically deposited into the client’s account upon receipt of the fee. The client brought the letter and accompanying check to us, concerned that it was a scam. The letter looked legitimate – it was on nice paper, used the logo for the sweepstakes company, and did not have any misspelled words (a frequent dead giveaway for these types of scams). However, a few minutes perusing the internet assured us that the letter and the check were a commonly used ploy to separate you from your money. The scam works like this: after you deposit the check to your account, it looks like the money is available to you. You send a check to the scammer as requested as soon as the 1-5 day hold from your bank is lifted, and you feel safe that the check cleared. It’s only after you send your money to the scammer that you find out that the check you deposited bounced because it can take weeks for forgeries to be discovered and for the check to bounce. As a result, you owe the bank for any money you withdrew on the fake check. This scam and other versions of it are used to target the unwary and has become quite prevalent. In fact, the problem is sufficiently prevalent that the sweepstakes company has a web page devoted to explaining to consumers that legitimate sweepstakes companies never ask you for money to claim a prize or pay a fee and that explicitly explains how this particular fraud works.

There are other scams out there as well. Here is one that almost got my sister-in-law: a woman called claiming to be from the Internal Revenue Service, calling about some back taxes that were owed. The woman on the phone had some information about my sister-in-law and her husband that was accurate and wanted my sister-in-law to verify her social security number. When she refused and began asking questions about the taxes owed, the woman became threatening and told my sister-in-law that she was going to be arrested if she didn’t co-operate and send her the money to pay the taxes immediately and that she would lose her house as well. Eventually, the woman hung up when my sister-in-law told her she was calling the real IRS on her cell phone. My sister-in-law, who is a well-educated woman, told me that at first she really did believe that the woman was calling from the IRS because she had some of her personal information. She was tipped off though by the woman’s over-reaction to questions about the basis for the claimed debt; nonetheless, the woman’s threatening language caused her some real concern. Many people are terrified of dealing with the IRS and are simply overwhelmed by the idea that the IRS is calling claiming they owe money. It is easy to see how someone could be overwhelmed by threats of jail or losing their house and give these con artists either their personal information, including their social security numbers, or send them money to make the threats and calls stop. Keep in mind that the IRS will NOT call you about unpaid back taxes. If you have unpaid back taxes, you will be notified by mail. And the IRS already has your social security number. You do not need to verify it to the IRS unless you call them. There are similar scams where scammers pose as Medicare representatives to get your personal information.

Another increasingly popular scam is for fake “tech support”. In this scam, either through a telephone call or through a pop-up message on the computer, the targeted person is told by someone pretending to be from technical support from a major computer company, like Microsoft, that malware or a virus has been detected on his or her computer. Of course, there really is no problem. The con artist may ask to take control of the computer so that he/she can “fix” the problem. The target is told that the “fix” will cost several hundred dollars which must be paid by credit card or money order before the problem can be fixed. If the target refuses, the con artist may threaten to destroy the computer or lock the target out. As scary as that sounds, allowing anyone to control your computer remotely is very dangerous because once inside the firewall, that person can access all your private information stored on the computer – bank account numbers, passwords, tax returns, addresses – whatever information may be there. Again, like the IRS, Microsoft, Apple and other tech companies do not call you or send you messages on your computer as you surf the internet. Assume that any such calls are scams. Protect yourself while on the internet by making sure your firewall is installed and up to date and never give anyone permission to access your computer remotely.

Why are seniors more vulnerable to these scams than others? In part because many seniors live alone, they have no one available to share their questions and concerns with when an issue arises or they feel confused or threatened by the person on the other end of the phone. For many faced with technology-related scams, their lack of understanding of how the technology works makes them more vulnerable to paying someone else to “fix” the problem they don’t really understand. Also, for seniors on a fixed income, there may be no way for them to recoup their losses. The worst part is that once you fall victim to a scam, the scammers may sell your information to others who target you as well.

How can you protect yourself? First, do not be afraid to speak up if you think you have been the victim of a scam – you are not alone. Alert Adult Protective Services, your local police, your bank, your credit card companies and the credit reporting agencies, especially if you think your personal information may have been compromised. Second, remember that legitimate companies are unlikely to call you up and ask you to verify information about yourself and they should not be calling from blocked numbers. Use caller ID and take down the telephone number of anyone who is verbally abusive or threatening to you in any way and then hang up. You can provide the number to the police. Third, the IRS and Medicare will not contact you by telephone. If there is a problem with your taxes or your Medicare benefits, the government will send you a letter. Not an email. A letter. If you receive a letter from the IRS or Medicare that concerns you, bring the notice to your tax preparer or attorney for help. Fourth, keep your computer security up-to-date. If you need help, try contacting AARP or local senior citizens groups for assistance. Fifth, never make charitable donations over the telephone. Insist that anyone contacting you send you written material before agreeing to pledge any amount. Sixth, remember that legitimate sweepstakes companies will never ask you for money to claim your prize or for any sort of fee. If you have any questions, look up the number for the company from a trusted source and call them directly. Finally, if someone calls you purporting to be from your bank, your credit card company or any other financial institution, hang up and call the business back using the phone number found on your statement or the back of your card. A legitimate caller will not mind your taking these steps to protect yourself.

Kit Kat

Ask Kit Kat – Medical Training Reform

Hook Law Center:  Kit Kat, what can you tell us about the use of live animals in medical training?

Kit Kat:  Well thankfully, the last medical school in the United States and Canada to use live animals in medical training has announced at the end of June (2016) that it would no longer do so! The University of Tennessee College of Medicine in Chattanooga was the last to utilize this practice. In the past, dogs, cats, and live pigs were used for medical students to practice surgical skills. Once, the surgery was done, the animals were euthanized and discarded. At Chattanooga alone, up to 300 pigs per year were used to practice such things as removing organs, using anesthesia, and making incisions. Records were not kept on the number of animals used nationwide, so we really don’t know how many animals were used in this way. Thankfully, technology allowed for an alternative. Simulators are now used instead.

Not to single out Tennessee as the only school. There were other holdouts that only recently discontinued the practice. Johns Hopkins announced their discontinuation of the practice in May 2016, only a month earlier than Tennessee. In 2015, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) announced they would stop using chimpanzees for medical research. The remaining 50 chimpanzees in their possession would be sent to sanctuaries. NIH was somewhat forced to change their practice after the US Fish and Wildlife Service declared chimpanzees to be endangered, even if they were not in the wild.

The effort to end use of live animals in medical studies has been a 30-year endeavor. Spearheaded by animal rights advocates, physicians themselves only really became convinced of the worthiness of the cause around 2005. Flight simulators at the time were already being used extensively in pilot training, and the idea of translating that technology to medical studies gradually took hold. It’s about time! (Darryl Fears, “One last U.S. medical school still killed animals to teach surgery. But no more.,” Animalia, The Washington Post, June 30, 2016)

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