Attorney General discusses fraud with Craig residents
September 21, 2011
“There is no substitute for saying no. It is the universal weapon against con men and scam artists.”
— Colorado Attorney General John Suthers on how seniors can protect themselves from fraud
Fraud happens everywhere.
Whether it's through telemarketing or direct mail solicitations, email pop ups, identity theft or fraudulent charities, scammers in the U.S. are preying on the unsuspecting and earning hundreds of billions of dollars in the process.
Colorado State Attorney General John Suthers is an expert on con men and the scams they operate. Not simply because his office is tasked with prosecuting offenders, but because he too has been a victim.
Suthers had his identity stolen in June 2006.
"In my case, someone stole letters from my mailbox and were able to gather enough information to falsify my identity," Suthers said. "I have to admit it was embarrassing and it goes to show that no one is immune to scammers."
In an effort to mitigate the chances of having his identity stolen again, Suthers said he "jealously" guards the identifying information he carries in his wallet, shreds all of his personal and financial documents and even purchased a locking mailbox.
Tips such as these were the highlight of a public meeting Suthers hosted with more than 30 local residents at The Center of Craig, 601 Yampa Ave., on Monday afternoon.
The public meeting was part of a two-day Northwest Colorado tour in which Suthers met with seniors in Craig, Steamboat Springs, Meeker, Rifle and Eagle to help them identify and protect themselves from a variety of scams.
The tour was in conjunction with the Colorado State Attorney General's Office and AARP's Elder Watch program.
According to a 2010 U.S. Department of Justice survey, elderly Americans are subject to fewer violent and property crimes as compared to younger generations.
"You live more responsible lives. You don't go into high crime areas," Suthers said. "And judging by the looks of you, you're not out at the bars until two o'clock in the morning."
However, the same survey indicates senior citizens are the most vulnerable to consumer fraud and other financial exploitation scams.
By far the most prevalent form of fraud seniors need to be aware of is done through telemarketing solicitations.
"Telemarketing fraud is a $40 billion a year industry," Suthers said. "One third, or $15 billion a year, is lost by seniors."
Suthers said the most common scam revolves around the lottery or some type of sweepstakes.
Typically, a con artist will call a senior citizen to inform he or she they have won the lottery and in order to receive their cash prize all they have to do is send money in for processing.
"Anytime you receive a call that you've won something and all you need to do is send money up front for processing, it's a guaranteed scam," Suthers said. "Additionally, you should be suspicious because you didn't enter the sweepstakes in the first place.
"You would be amazed at how many folks think they won the lottery when they didn't enter."
Suthers said there are three things seniors should do if they receive an unsolicited phone call.
• Hang up
• Never volunteer personal information such as social security number, date of birth, bank accounts or credit card numbers.
• Never agree to payment in advance.
Charitable fraud is another area that seems to target senior citizens, Suthers said.
"People of your generation and my generation seem to be fairly trustworthy," Suthers said. "A handshake is a handshake. Unfortunately, because of that we tend to be fairly vulnerable (to charitable fraud)."
But Suthers said it's not that senior citizens are being fleeced entirely by illegal or phony charities. According to Colorado law, it is perfectly legal for charitable organizations to hire commercial solicitation companies to assist with fundraisers and those companies charge administration fees.
An annual report conducted by the Colorado Secretary of State shows charitable campaigns take in $200 million a year. Of that, only $90 to $100 million goes to charity, while the rest is collected by commercial solicitation companies to cover administration costs.
Additionally, the Secretary of State report concludes that in the last 30 years, only 47 percent of charitable donations actually find there way to the charity.
Suthers recommends anyone who receives a charitable solicitation over the phone to ask the solicitor how much of the donation will actually go to charity.
"What I have found is once they discover you have that level of sophistication, they'll usually hang up because they don't want to tell you," Suthers said.
If still skeptical, Suthers said to ask solicitors for their Secretary of State registration number, which they are required to have.
"If you can't find the charity on one of these two sites," Suthers said, "don't give."
Suthers also touched on direct mail fraud, home improvement scams, identity theft, debt management fraud and the infamous "grandson in trouble" scam during his one-hour presentation.
He said in all cases, education is the key to protecting yourself.
"There's a lot you can do to protect yourself," Suthers said. "Read things and educate yourself.
"There is no substitute for saying no. It is the universal weapon against con men and scam artists."
Amy Nozfiger, manager and program leader for AARP's Elder Watch, agrees with Suthers that protection begins with education.
"We depend so much on word of mouth," Nozfiger said. "We had more than 30 people here today. Chances are good that each of those people knows another 10 who couldn't make it.
"If they talk to each other, that is what will really help spread this information."
Suthers said it is important for seniors to report scams to local law enforcement, the local district attorney's office or the attorney general's office regardless of how small or insignificant the encounter may seem.
"We take in a lot of complaints from all over the state," Suthers said. "We don't have the resources to respond to every one, but we do maintain a database.
"It really does pay to issue complaints because we will allocate our resources to the ones that receive the most complaints."
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