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When Peggy Benedict’s computer froze and a voice came through the speaker directing her to call a number for tech support, she and her husband complied.
The voice spent an hour with Benedict, 76, and her husband, Calvert, 79, seemingly trying to solve their problem.
Then “John from Microsoft” instructed the Laurel couple to buy gift cards at Target, as payment for fixing the computer.
“John” stayed on the phone as they bought $5,000 worth of cards and read him the serial numbers. He then pressured them to purchase more.
Benedict finally began to suspect a scam. She called a relative, who confirmed her fears.
“We’re college educated and fairly sophisticated in the ways of the world,” Benedict said. “When I’d hear about something like this, I would think, It could never happen to me.”
Many other people say that, too, but the U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau estimates that 3.5 million instances of fraud targeting older adults occurred in 2017 and consumers in their 70s lost an average of $45,300.
That’s why AARP Maryland, working with state government and consumer advocates, is promoting Protect Week, starting Monday, June 15, to raise awareness about, and provide resources to prevent and address, fraud.
Financial abuse may be perpetrated by strangers, relatives, friends or caregivers, said Jen Holz, outreach director for AARP Maryland.
Beware of impostor scams
“Phishing scams are becoming more sophisticated, and we’re seeing an uptick in impostor scams and claims around the IRS and Social Security,” Holz said. “Everyone can potentially be defrauded, and there’s no shame in seeking help.”
The week’s planned events include an AARP Maryland telephone town hall with experts, as well as online and print resources that will go out to residents across the state.
Protect Week coincides with World Elder Abuse Awareness Day, on June 15. Most counties plan an event or forum during the week.
Given the uncertainty over the coronavirus pandemic, most of the events will be virtual, including the telephone town hall with local and state officials. Check for updates at protectweek.org.
Helene Raynaud, president and CEO of Columbia-based CCCSMD, a nonprofit housing and credit counseling service that is co-leading Protect Week, noted an increase in financial stress among older people, often caused by fraud.
“It’s a complex, emotional issue,” she observed. When they are being taken advantage of by those they know, “it’s hard for people to even believe it’s happening to them.”
According to Antonio Salazar, Maryland commissioner of financial regulation, you should view unsolicited pitches or requests “with great suspicion.” If you feel pressured during a suspicious call, hang up and talk to a family member or friend.
You can also call the state Consumer Protection Division hotline (410-528-8662) for guidance. Those who have been scammed should file complaints with the Federal Trade Commission at ftc.gov or 877-382-4357.
Benedict reported her experience to the FTC. While she and her husband lost $5,000, she realized it could have been worse. “I’m embarrassed,” she said. “But I look at it as a learning experience.”
Michelle R. Davis is a writer living in Silver Spring.
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