Jean Mathisen with AARP Washington (standing) visited the West Seattle Senior Center on July 26 to talk about fraud, scams and techniques used to prey on the elderly.
Psychology of scams discussed at West Seattle Senior Center
Jean Mathisen with AARP Washington’s “Fraud Fighter Call Center” visited with 20 seniors for lunch and discussion on the West Seattle Senior Center on July 26.
Her expertise is in the psychological techniques used by scammers to convince seniors to participate in their own financial victimization.
A vigorous discussion ensued with Jean’s information and ample examples of fraud attempts from her audience. Here are some highlights:
Why are seniors targeted by scammers?
Based on stereotypes, Mathisen said senior are considered an “easy mark” because they are trusting and may be in mental decline. All of that wouldn’t matter however, except “almost all retired people have some sort of nest egg … and it gives scammers a hope that they may be able to clean out our bank accounts and use it to line our pockets.”
Techniques to protect yourself from fraud
Mathisen suggested shredding all unneeded documents, use a locking mail box, use a P.O. Box, and ideally use the post office when sending mail out.
“I think one reason old people tend to be victimized by mail fraud is because often times mobility is an issue and it may be difficult to go to the post office,” she said. “It is a lot easier to just put our outgoing mail in the mailbox, sometimes at the curb … pop up the red flag and that is really like Bob Barker’s ‘Come on down!’ to the scammer.”
Also, check your credit reports on a regular basis with all three major reporting agencies (Experian, Equifax, TransUnion) by using www.annualcreditreport.com – the only free service with no catch, she said. It is possible to pick up on fraudulent activity by looking at your report.
Mathisen said fraud attempts often occur over the phone or through email. Her cardinal rule in all cases when someone is asking for money, personal information or financial information is to “Never share unless you initiate the contact.”
The real life examples come flooding in
Mathisen happened to be preaching to the choir on this particular day, as most in her audience had examples of scammers doing there best to steal, but getting shut down by those who knew better.
There was the email from a grandmother’s niece saying she was at the U.S. Embassy in Spain and needed money so she could get back home. Instead of following the directions in the email, she called her niece who said her email had been hacked, and she had never been to Spain.
There was the woman who gets a call at least once a month where the scammer proclaims, “We can reduce your credit card interest rate to six percent!,” and all they need is to verify her bank account information to make it happen. Instead of giving it out, she called her bank and they said, “Not us.”
And then there was the gentleman who received a call from an alleged police department in California. They told the man his good friend was in jail and had requested they call him to help post bail. One other thing … they said it would be quicker if the money was wired to a South American country instead of California. The man responded with, “Let me check with my friend at the King County Sheriff’s Office …Click!” (they hung up).
The examples continued on, from Jamaican lottery winner scams to fake bill collectors to for-profit charitable organizations.
Mathisen said to be very careful with charity calls because it is completely legal for for-profit companies in Washington to keep up to 99 percent of donations, with only one percent going to the actual cause. She said they usually ask the elderly for donations to police, fire and veteran organizations, but Mathisen recommends (before giving) contacting the WA Secretary of State’s office to find out, first, if the charity is legit and, second, what percentage of the donation actually makes it to the organization. Call 1-800-GIVE or visit www.secstate.wa.gov/charities to find out.
The psychology of it all
Mathisen said a number of psychological techniques are employed by scammers, including tying into the headlines (your home is underwater or are you having credit card debt problems), bill collectors preying on you by employing guilt (“Old people are honest and do not want to appear as deadbeats,” she said), or appealing to your emotions or fears by pretending someone you care about is in dire need of financial help (like the niece in Spain).
She said the scams can get pretty slick and sophisticated at times and provided an example: “If you hear from your bank that someone is using your credit card and they just need the number on the back of your card because they already have the information on the front ... and sometimes the scammer will even say, ‘Never give anyone who calls you the information on the front of your card because then you could be the victim of identity theft, but I just need to make sure you have the number on the back.’ … Well, once you give them that number on the back, you are out of business because they will be using your credit card … in seconds across the globe.”
“Our mantra, no matter what happens, if anyone calls us and we didn’t initiate the contact but they want personal or financial information or they want money, the answer is always ‘No, I will not send it.’”
“No matter how nice the people are making those requests, the answer always has to be ‘No.’”