NEWARK – Acting Attorney General John J. Hoffman and the New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs today continued the commemoration of National Consumer Protection Week by calling attention to common scams that prey on senior citizens – and by reminding New Jersey’s seniors that they can protect themselves with basic vigilance.
“Senior citizens all too often are seen by con artists, scammers, and unscrupulous businesses as tempting targets,” Acting Attorney General Hoffman said. “They recruit their victims by phone, letter, email, or even door-to-door solicitation. Their stories will vary, but the goal is the same: To fool their victims into giving away either their hard-earned money, or the personal information that is valuable to identity thieves.”
Division of Consumer Affairs Acting Director Steve Lee said, “Fortunately, consumers and their loved ones can take control and protect themselves by watching for the various types of scams that are out there – and by resolving never to pay money, give away their personal information, or click on a link or attachment without being absolutely sure they know who they are dealing with.”
Scams that prey on senior citizens, and other New Jerseyans, include:
Impostor Scams. The “Grandparent Scam” remains a prominent member of this category. A con artist may start the phone call to a senior citizen by saying, “Grandpa, it’s me!” Once the victim responds and provides the name of his or her grandchild, the impostor will say he or she ran into trouble, such as a drunk driving arrest, and needs bail money. Top stop the victim from verifying the story, the criminal will often say, “Don’t tell mom and dad. They would be so disappointed.” He or she will ask the victim to send money through a wire transfer service or pre-loaded debit card.
Impostors will also pretend to represent government agencies such as the IRS. “IRS scammers” will reach out by phone or email to state that the victim owes significant penalties and back taxes. Victims who refuse to pay may be threatened with arrest or deportation. In another variation, the victim is told he or she is entitled to a large refund – and must provide personal information that can expose the victim to identity theft.
Business impostors may send emails purporting to be from the victim’s phone or utility companies. The email may direct the victim to a website that seems genuine – and that will ask the victim to enter his or her credit card or other financial information.
Advance Fee Scams. These include sweepstakes scams and others in which the victim is told that he or she has won a prize or is otherwise entitled to a large sum of money – but must first send a smaller payment to cover taxes or fees. Victims who pay that “advance fee” never get the money that was promised.
Phishing Scams. Phishing refers to emails, text messages, social networking posts, or other online messages that appear to come from a friend or other trusted source. They will invite the victim to click on an innocent-looking link or attachment. This “Trojan horse” may expose the victim’s computer to malware that will steal the victim’s personal information, or ransomware that renders the victim’s computer unusable unless money is paid to the criminals who sent the virus.
Among other pretexts, phishing scams have reportedly capitalized on recent high-profile data breaches. The affected companies often offer free credit monitoring and/or identity theft protection services to affected consumers. Scammers follow up on these announcements with their own phone calls or emails, pretending to offer information and help.
Cashier’s Check Scams. These may include cashier’s check that come in the mail, unannounced, to prospective victims – including one that appeared to be a check from the New Jersey State Treasury.
They may also include an offer from a “customer” to a victim who is selling goods online. A con artist may offer to purchase the items for more than the victim’s asking price – but will say he or she can only pay by a cashier’s check for an even higher amount.
In either case, the victim will be asked to deposit the check, then send a smaller amount back to the con artist. The fake cashier’s check will look realistic enough to fool the teller at the victim’s bank. The victim’s bank account balance may at first appear to include the funds from the fake check.
It is only after sending money to the criminals that the victim will discover no money was actually deposited into his or her account – and the victim has lost whatever money was sent to the scammer.
Door-to-Door Solicitations. Not every door-to-door solicitation is a scam. But home improvement scammers and others have been known to prey on senior citizens and other victims through door-to-door solicitations. The scammer may say he or she just happened to be in the area and noticed serious problems with the victim’s chimney or roof – but he or she can fix the problem for a small fee. Once the victim has paid, the scammer may perform work that is completely unnecessary – or may perform no work at all.
“Free Lunch” Seminars. Investment advisors may invite senior citizens to “free lunch” seminars at which the guests are treated to a sales pitch for an investment that may not be suitable for them. Anyone who attends the event should be prepared for what follows the meal – and should remember that showing up for the free lunch does not obligate anyone to make an investment. Consumers should not confuse a sales pitch for sound financial advice. The presenter will not know each attendee’s specific financial circumstances and will not be in a position to know how they should best invest their money.
Charity Scams. Some purported charities have violated New Jersey law by misleading the public while soliciting donations. Before giving, potential donors should find out exactly how the charity plans to use their money – and how much will be spent on actual charitable programs, rather than fundraising or management costs. Charities that are not religious or educational institutions, and whose annual income includes at least $10,000 in public contributions and fundraising, must register with the Division of Consumer Affairs and provide this information.
Advice for Consumers:
Fortunately, senior citizens and their loved ones can protect themselves against fraud with awareness, vigilance, and common sense.
Most importantly, consumers should never send money, give away their personal or financial information, or click on a link or attachment, without first taking the time to make sure the communication they received is valid.
Consumers are advised to independently verify the information in an email, phone call, or letter. Use another source to find a separate phone number for the person or entity that supposedly made the communication, in order to verify whether it was genuine.
Just as important, consumers should never act without thinking. This is true especially when dealing with a sales pitch or a threat that says “you must act right away.” And even more so if the consumer is told, “keep this confidential and don’t tell anyone about this deal.”
Just as with the Grandparent Scam, con artists try to create a false sense of urgency and a need for secrecy. They know consumers are much more likely to become victims if their emotions are higher – and if they are prevented from discussing the scam with a friend or relative.
Additional Information from the Division of Consumer Affairs:
The Division of Consumer Affairs educates senior citizens and other New Jerseyans through a robust schedule of public events. The Division’s public outreach calendar can be found at www.njconsumeraffairs.gov/outreach.
Consumers seeking information about fraud prevention can find additional information in the following, free publications on the Division’s website:
- The FedUp Handbook The FedUp Handbook, also available in Spanish
- Consumer Briefs on a variety of consumer protection topics, also available in Spanish
- The Division’s “Cyber Safe NJ” website, at www.NJConsumerAffairs.gov/cybersafe, includes important consumer protection information on “The Basics of Cyber Safety,” “Preventing Identity Theft,” and “Controlling Your Privacy.”
Consumers who believe they have been cheated or scammed by a business, or suspect any other form of marketplace abuse, can file a complaint with the New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs by visiting its website or by calling 1-800-242-5846 (toll free within New Jersey) or 973-504-6200.
National Consumer Protection Week (NCPW) is a coordinated campaign that encourages consumers nationwide to take full advantage of their consumer rights and make better-informed decisions. NCPW 2015 will take place March 1 through March 7 2015. Additional information is available at www.NCPW.gov.