Where could you learn how to avoid scams and frauds, have your personal documents shredded, dispose of unwanted prescription medicines, search for unclaimed money – and get free snacks and lunch?
The answer: at the AARP-Fairfax County Scam Jam held on April 27, 2019, at the Fairfax County Government Center in Fairfax, Virginia.
Nearly 400 people registered to attend the second annual Scam Jam, which was jointly sponsored by AARP and Fairfax County and staffed by about 40 AARP and Fairfax County volunteers.
Attendees learned from speakers and exhibitors about common scams and frauds, particularly those targeting senior citizens; heard tips on how to save money on big-ticket items; and lined up to discover whether they had unclaimed funds held by the Virginia Department of the Treasury. By the end of the Scam Jam, more than $14,000 in unclaimed funds had been identified and claimed by almost 70 people, in amounts ranging from one cent to several thousand dollars.
For Financial Security, Recognize and Avoid Financial Scams
AARP Volunteer Community Ambassador Ridge Multop welcomed audience members and introduced Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Vice Chairman Penny Gross (Mason District) and Fairfax County Supervisor Pat Herrity (Springfield District). The county supervisors were instrumental in setting up the Silver Shield Task Force, a group of county agencies, along with AARP Virginia, that provide Fairfax County residents with educational outreach on scams targeting elderly citizens.
Retirement security is a main focus of AARP, and “having good financial resources includes preventing financial schemes that target older Americans and for that matter, anyone,” Multop pointed out. “AARP has a lot of tools to help you recognize scams and frauds.”
“Silver Shield was developed in response to concerns we heard from the community,” Supervisor Gross said. She told the story of a Fairfax County resident in her 90s who came to the Mason District Police Station to speak with a detective because she had lost $28,000 to a grandparent scam.
“That was the first time I had heard of the grandparent scam, but a few weeks later I got a call – ‘Hello Grandma?’ Well, I didn’t have any grandchildren!”
Both Supervisor Gross and Supervisor Herrity emphasized the value of spreading information about scams and frauds. Supervisor Herrity chairs the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors 50+ Committee, which helps disseminate information and develop policies on “aging in place” in the county.
“We need to educate not just our seniors, but our families and our community members,” he said. “The more we educate, the more we can help everyone in our community.”
Same Old Scams, But New Tactics
“I’ve been doing this for 30 years, since I got out of college,” keynote speaker Susan Hogan, Consumer Investigative Reporter for NBC4 in Washington, D.C., told the audience. “The scams are exactly the same, but the tactics have changed.”
Hogan and her team receive thousands of consumer complaints and have recovered almost $2 million for viewers.
“No matter how educated we are, the scammers are ahead of us,” she said, so there is nothing embarrassing about being taken advantage of.
Her number one takeaway? Contact each of the three main credit bureaus to request a credit freeze, which prevents a scammer from accessing your personal information and opening an account in your name.
“If you walk away today learning one thing, I hope this is it.”
She explained that it takes only a few minutes to freeze your credit, and a freeze can be reversed easily if, for example, you are seeking a car loan and want to let a lender review your credit record. (For details on how to freeze your credit, see https://www.aarp.org/money/scams-fraud/identity-theft/info-2018/protect-credit-by-freezing.html.)
Hogan also discussed a number of scams that are common in Northern Virginia, including paving scams, “woodchuck” scams (tree removal and home repair crews that target older residents), impersonation scams, time share scams, and work from home and mystery shopper scams. In one case, woodchucks tried to convince an elderly resident that she needed a $14,000 roof repair by showing her a bucket of wet insulation. She signed a contract, but had second thoughts and called her son; he contacted a legitimate roofer who inspected her roof and found it was fine.
“If you’re not quite sure and you have a feeling in your gut that something isn’t quite right, check it out,” Hogan said.
Fairfax County Works to Protect Older Adults
AARP Community Ambassador Lil Keys introduced three Silver Shield Task Force members who provided information on adult protective services, avoiding fraud after a disaster, and police investigation of criminal scams and frauds.
Allison Fitch is the Financial Exploitation Coordinator for Fairfax County Adult Protective Services. As a member of the Silver Shield Task Force, she investigates financial exploitation of elderly residents, many of whom may be “attractive victims” because they have retirement accounts.
Silver Shield uses a collaborative approach and builds networks among agencies. As an example, Adult Protective Services may discuss cases with other Silver Shield agencies to identify resources and solutions for older residents.
Fitch provided contact information for the Aging, Disability, and Caregiver Resource Line (703-324-7948), which is a one-stop shop for speakers and information, and the Adult Protective Services Hotline (703-324-7450).
“We want to make sure you have the resources to help yourselves,” she said, because scammers are “very savvy” individuals.
Sulayman Brown, Assistant Coordinator of the Fairfax County Office of Emergency Management, offered guidance on avoiding scams if you are the victim of a disaster due to flooding, fire, snow, ice, or other cause. He highlighted three areas of concern: contractor solicitations, insurance fraud, and charities.
“Say no to anyone who comes to your door to solicit” a contracting job after a disaster, Brown said.
Get second opinions before hiring a contractor and don’t pay deposits before work is completed. Deal directly with the insurance adjuster rather than allowing the contractor to do so. The adjuster – not the contractor – should tell you what work needs to be competed and what the insurer will pay for. Finally, before making a charitable donation to assist disaster victims, make sure the organization is legitimate.
Police Enforcement Against Scams and Fraud
“We want to make Fairfax County a great place to live, work, play, and grow old,” Fairfax County Police Detective Jonathan Loesch told attendees.
But Fairfax County is “a target-rich environment, and people want your money,”
Scammers are fishing, he explained.
“I take my children fishing. If they go fishing enough, they will get a bite.”
Loesch focused on two scams that target seniors: the grandparent scam and the woodchuck scam.
The grandparent scam typically consists of a caller posing as the resident’s grandchild and saying he or she is in trouble and needs money immediately.
To thwart grandparent scammers, protect yourself by not sharing too much on social media. Don’t answer the phone if you don’t know who is calling. Don’t confirm your phone number to a caller, don’t give personal information, and don’t send money. With any unsolicited phone call, resist the urge to act immediately. Instead, hang up the phone and check in with family members or others whom you trust.
Woodchucks are crews who travel through neighborhoods and offer to do yard work and other tasks, convincing the homeowner that the work is necessary and then charging an exorbitant price. According to Loesch, woodchucks call themselves “Granny getters” because they seek out older residents to defraud.
If a woodchuck appears at your doorstep, ask to see the solicitors’ license required by Fairfax County. Call the police non-emergency number (703-691-2131) if the solicitor has no license. Or post a no-soliciting sign, which makes it against the law for solicitors to knock on your door.
And the “scam trends” for 2019? Loesch said that since January the scammers in his district have included driveway pavers, woodchucks, and “yellow vest” workers pretending to be from the power company.
U.S. Postal Inspection Service Makes Education a Priority
Educating the public about fraud is one of the U.S. Postal Inspection Service’s primary missions, and “it’s the people who are not in this room who are the most vulnerable,” according to U.S. Postal Inspector Ray Campbell. Unfortunately, once a person has been defrauded the money can rarely be recovered, so helping people avoid fraud is a top priority.
Campbell said the Top 10 frauds investigated by his agency involve: lottery and sweepstakes, romance, timeshares, technical support, magazine subscription renewals, victim restitution, investments, mystery shopper and fake checks, local utilities and tax scams, and charitable donations.
Skilled scammers work to convince you, Campbell said. “They want you to start dreaming” about what you can do with your family. They will build a relationship with you, with the goal of stealing your money and perhaps your identity as well.
Campbell warned that a common tactic of scammers is “testing the waters” to determine a potential scam victim’s level of awareness. In the case of a magazine renewal, the scammer might bill a subscriber twice. If the subscriber ignores the double billing, the scammer may follow up with increased fraudulent activity. Similarly, cold call sales pitches often start off small. According to Campbell, if someone appears to be “easy prey” the scammer may step up the calls, posing as a court official or law enforcement official to frighten the person into handing over more and more money.
There’s an easy rule for dealing with such calls, Campbell said.
“Don’t send money to anybody who calls and asks for it. No federal or state agency will call and ask you for money.”
Be a Savvy Consumer
Closing speaker Elisabeth Leamy, consumer columnist for the Washington Post, turned to “the positive”: how to save big, sidestep scams, and be a savvy consumer.
Leamy’s simple method for protecting yourself is to “be the hunter, not the hunted.” Don’t do business with people who seek you out and approach you. Instead, do your own research to find a contractor to repair property after a disaster, call your grandchild to see if he or she is trying to reach you, and so on.
Fending off scams and rip-offs is frustrating and exhausting, Leamy pointed out. She recommended focusing on “the big stuff” by finding ways to reduce expenses in the major areas of housing, cars, credit, groceries, and health care.
Leamy’s suggestions included: engaging in comparison shopping for phone, cable, and Internet service and for medical care; refinancing a car loan; using savings to pay high-interest credit card debt; transferring a credit card balance to obtain a lower rate; and refinancing into an adjustable rate home mortgage if you know you will move or refinance before the rate adjusts upward.
She also encouraged audience members to search Missingmoney.com, Unclaimed.org, and Vamoneysearch.org to learn whether they have unclaimed money held by a state.
Assets that may end up unclaimed include security deposits, final paychecks, forgotten safe deposit boxes, uncashed certificates of deposit, life insurance policies, lost tax refunds, and unredeemed savings bonds. Leamy urged attendees to identify all assets on a list available to family members, so money is not lost between generations.
Keep Up with News on Scams and Frauds
With expert advice from speakers, useful handouts from exhibitors, the opportunity for free money, and lunch to boot, the Scam Jam was a valuable resource for everyone who plans to live, work, play, and grow old in Fairfax County.
To keep up with the latest news on scams and fraud, sign up for the AARP Fraud Watch Network at www.aarp.org/fraudwatchnetwork; “like” the AARP Fraud Watch Network on Facebook; or request a presentation by an AARP Fraud Watch Network speaker by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or calling toll-free 1-866-542-8164.
Written by: Jane Limprecht, AARP Volunteer Reporter, Springfield