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‘Do your homework’: Panel of experts schools seniors on popular scams

Sally Kim Westlake, Kevin Durawa and Jackie Wiley (from left) offer seniors tips to protect themselves against scams.
Sally Kim Westlake, Kevin Durawa and Jackie Wiley (from left) offer seniors tips to protect themselves against scams during a webinar May 25.
(Elisabeth Frausto)

“Older Americans lose a staggering $2.9 billion a year to an ever-growing array of financial exploitation schemes and scams,” said U.S. Rep Scott Peters (D-La Jolla) during a webinar he hosted May 25 to inform seniors of such scams, many related to COVID-19.

He said “health and financial concerns related to the COVID-19 pandemic have also allowed scammers to take advantage of Americans through robocalls [automated calls using a computerized dialer and prerecorded messages] and text messages” that target seniors, preying on “their lack of knowledge or their fear.”

To combat this exploitation, three experts shared information on identifying scams and protecting personal information.

Sally Kim Westlake from the California Department of Insurance, a state agency that regulates all lines of insurance in the marketplace, said “scammers are pitching COVID-19 health insurance coverages” that falsely “promise full coverage and treatment at low prices, but they’re scamming to steal your money and identity by saying your current health insurance doesn’t cover [coronavirus] treatments on your policy.”

Another scam involves calling seniors and telling them a “loved one is sick in the hospital [and] needs a ventilator urgently, their health insurance canceled due to nonpayment of premiums,” she said.

Scammers might then say if seniors “make the behind premium payments over the phone right now,” the policy will be reinstated and the loved one will receive the needed medical care, Westlake said.

Other scams involve calls offering free COVID-19 tests, medications and vaccines if the recipients will confirm their Medicare and social security numbers.

Westlake said the scammers then use the information to “make bogus claims on your Medicare policies.”

Sally Kim Westlake warned seniors, often victims of scams, not to disclose information to unsolicited callers.
Sally Kim Westlake warned seniors, often victims of scams, not to disclose information to unsolicited callers.
(Elisabeth Frausto)

Westlake said unsolicited calls, texts and emails asking for personal information are scams, and asked webinar participants to repeat the phrase “I do not disclose any information to unsolicited callers” anytime they receive such inquiries.

“Then hang up,” Westlake said. “You don’t have to be polite; be stingy with your personal information and update passwords regularly.”

Westlake said the state offers a website (https://seniors.insurance.ca.gov/) “to provide seniors, their families, and caregivers with the information they need to connect to helpful services and resources,” avoid fraud and report abuse.

Seniors are also “very much a target of unlicensed contractors,” said Kevin Durawa of the California Contractors State License Board. Seniors are “often very trusting,” making them a vulnerable group for contracting scams.

Those running a scam will “try to manipulate seniors [by] establishing connections,” he said, such as mentioning a neighbor’s child attends the same school as the senior’s grandchild.

Other common tactics, he said, include door-to-door sales and high-pressure strategies.

An example of this, Durawa said, is someone who knocks on the door “who’s got a pickup truck filled with fertilizer saying, ‘Hey I was doing your neighbor’s lawn in the area, and I got some extra materials. How about I do your lawn for 800 bucks? I can do it right now, it’s a really good deal.’”

He said the “pressure on you to make a decision right away … is a high-pressure tactic. You don’t know if this contractor is licensed,” or if the materials and labor will be high-quality.

“They may just take your money and leave the job unfinished and you with a big mess to clean up,” he said.

Another common scam is the scare tactic, Durawa said. “You get a knock at the door and an unlicensed contractor wants to come in and give you a free home inspection. [It] sounds like a great deal.”

The senior is then told there are problems with the roof, plumbing or other components, he said.

“Use caution when inviting anyone in your home or even answering the door,” Durawa said, adding that if a resident is unsure about the identity of someone at the door, “don’t even open the door; ask them to leave their information right there on the doorstep, so you can check it later.”

When checking information, he said, “check the contract or the license number … and if they don’t have any material, then chances are they’re not licensed.”

He said “some of the biggest scams we see … involve unlicensed contractors asking for an unusually large down payment,” adding state law requires a down payment for contracted work “must be no more than 10 percent or $1,000, whatever’s less.”

Those who believe they’ve been scammed can file a complaint with CSLB by calling (800) 321-2752 or emailing info@cslb.ca.gov.

Jackie Wiley from the California Department of Financial Protection and Innovation, which licenses and regulates state financial institutions, products and professionals, had this advice for seniors to protect themselves from any financial scam: “Do your homework.”

Wiley said scammers often prey on seniors as they are home more often and more likely to answer the phone.

Common scams involve seniors being told the Internal Revenue Service is calling to collect unpaid taxes, or a Social Security Administration representative is calling to ensure their social security number hasn’t been stolen.

In both cases, Wiley said, the agencies will never call to request sensitive information.

“Remember the bottom line is, you didn’t call them,” she said. “These people are calling you; that’s a red flag.”

“I know these calls can be intimidating and fearful, but don’t jump to do something too fast,” Wiley said.

To protect financial information, Wiley advised seniors to “trust your instincts. ... Never give out your personal information unless you initiated the contact and … always go to the source yourself.”

For more information about protection against fraud, call (866) 275-2677. ◆