That strange phone call from someone claiming to be an unnamed grandchild in desperate need of money. A letter stating that the recipient is the winner of a lottery prize. A person going door-to-door collecting money for a charity.
Is it real or is it a scam?
According to Melissa Ames, director of marketing and public relations at the Better Business Bureau in Youngstown, there are four characteristics of a scam.
''If it is a scam, the offer is too good to be true,'' Ames said. ''If you have a phone call that tells you that you have won the lottery, but you need to pay to claim your prize, then this is a scam. If you are asked to use a money order or Green Dot cards to transfer funds, then this is a scam.
''Any type of message concerning international prize money is a scam. Whenever there is a dollar to be made, there is a scam,'' Ames said.
Senior citizens can be especially vulnerable to scammers. In a 2010 survey conducted by the nonprofit organization the Investor Protection Trust, more than 7 million Americans older than 65 have become victim to financial scams.
Top senior scams
- Telemarketing that includes Internet, phones and mail
- Fake charities
- Health-care fraud
- Identity theft
- Financial exploitation, including online investment and securities fraud
- National Association of Triads
''Seniors are a very trusting group and want to believe people have good intentions,'' Ames said. ''Seniors have to take the time to do research on a company and make sure the offer is genuine.''
Fortunately for local seniors, there are resources to help determine if a venture is legitimate and to take action if a senior is the victim of a scam.
Carol Hitchcock, owner of Home Instead Senior Care in Youngstown, Warren and Austintown, said that Home Instead has teamed up with the National Association of Triads to develop a senior fraud protection kit. Hitchcock said that the kit is free, and anyone can call the Home Instead office to have one shipped to their homes.
''The kit includes an assessment form to see whether they are a potential target for a scam, and advice on how to protect themselves from scams,'' Hitchcock said. ''The kit includes tools that help seniors assess what to watch out for, to make sure they are not a target for a scam.''
Ames said it is important to call the Better Business Bureau to evaluate whether a questionable email, phone call or piece of mail is legitimate or not.
But if a senior does fall victim to a scam, Hitchcock stressed the importance of alerting the authorities and most importantly, loved ones.
'''Seniors should call the police department and let them know that they have been subject to a scam,'' Hitchcock said. ''Sometimes seniors do not want to tell anybody or tell their family about being scammed.''
Sgt. Howard Haynie of the Hubbard Police Department said that the problem is that the elderly are apprehensive to report if they are scammed.
"The elderly are sometimes embarrassed and do not want their loved ones to get the feeling that they cannot live on their own,'' Haynie said.
Lt. Don Bishop of the Warren Township Police Department said that a lot of scam artists put pressure on older people by trying to give them an offer that is too good to be true.
''Seniors should always question if this offer seems legitimate or not,'' he said. ''It's like getting a second opinion from a doctor. They should call somebody such as a close friend or a family member.''
The most important tool for seniors is to educate themselves about scams.
''Education and information are the best tools to keep people from becoming victims of fraud and scams,'' said Lisa Solley, chief of community relations and wellness training at the Area Agency on Aging 11.
'''I tell older adults if someone is soliciting something over the phone, you should respond by saying that you are not interested and hang up,'' Solley said. ''If there is a charity or cause that you want to donate to, you will call it yourself. If the caller is a local cause such as fire or police, it's good to ask them to put something in writing and send it to you.''
Ames said one common scam that seniors encounter is the ''grandparent scam.''
'''With this type of scam, you'll get a call from a person in the middle of the night saying that they are your grandchild and that they are asking for money because they are in an emergency situation,'' she said.
''This person will say they are your grandchild, but they won't identify their name. In this type of scam, these people are trying to put the consumer in an uncomfortable and frantic state, so they will give away any type of personal information without thinking about it. We see many consumers in the Valley losing several thousand dollars because of these situations.''
Haynie said that seniors need to be cautious about these situations and not to be afraid to contact law enforcement authorities.
''If the elderly are approached by a person, by phone, or the Internet, they should never enter their personal information,'' he said. ''They should never act on a contest or prize that they never entered and they should never wire money to a stranger.''