Safety for Seniors

California Assembly speaker Toni Atkins gathered a panel of public safety experts for a town hall meeting Aug. 7 at La Jolla Library, specifically addressing ways to protect senior citizens from identity theft and scams.

“In the last few years, we’ve started looking at crime differently. It’s not just about locking your doors and windows,” she told the audience of about 75. “Technology has made incredible advances and allowed us to do incredible things, but unfortunately, technology is also being used creatively to do us harm. The bad guys are getting smarter and more sophisticated, so we have to be smarter, too.”

She reported 1 billion personal records were exposed in data breaches last year, and there is a new identity fraud every two seconds.

Panelists from the fields of real estate, trusts and estates, the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV), and the prosecutor’s office explained common scams and offered advice on how to protect yourself against them and what to do if your identity is stolen.

Timeshare trickery

Veronica Kilpatrick, an enforcement manager for the California Bureau of the Real Estate, said one of the fastest rising real estate scams involves timeshares. When it comes to those who want to sell their timeshares, scammers seek them out and pose as someone able to sell it. “They call the timeshare owners and say they have or can find an interested buyer, and all the owner has to do is give them $500 to advertise,” she said. “Then they say, ‘If we can’t sell it, we’ll buy it from you.’ At the end of the listing period, the scammers offer a dollar to buy the timeshare — keeping their promise, but not at a fair price.”

Kilpatrick said you should never wire money to these companies, as they often have out-of-state accounts. When money is wired out of state, she said, it becomes much more difficult to track. “Unless you have verified the person calling is licensed or from the company from which you bought the timeshare, do not send them any money,” Kilpatrick stated. She also offered suggestions to avoid being scammed in a real estate deal:

■ Know that every contract regarding real estate must be in writing, it can never be verbal.

■ Make sure you understand whatever you are signing, do not sign anything if any of the information is missing; don’t take anyone at their word they will fill out a contract in accordance with what was agreed upon.

■ If there is anything you discussed that is not reflected in the contract, write it in or do not sign it.

Kilpatrick also advised checking references. “One of the things people do with real estate agents is get to know them and start to like them, and so folks trust them instead of checking their references. Never feel you are being impolite by asking questions.”

Tips from the DMV

A common way to steal someone’s identity is to gather personal information from their mail or trash and use it to apply for some form of identification. Thieves look for names, date of birth, address, the ending of an account number or social security number. The panelists encouraged shredding any piece of mail or document you plan to throw away with such information on it.

When it comes to catching identity thieves, “We at the DMV have something no one else has,” said investigator Elva Godoy. “If the person who committed the fraud and stole your identity came to the DMV (to get a license), they posed for a photograph and scanned a thumbprint. We have that information and will share it with the police.”

In addition to using stolen information to obtain a fake ID, some identity thieves use it to register a car. After purchasing the car, if these scammers get parking tickets or other moving violations, they often don’t pay them. However, the DMV will send notices of outstanding tickets to the car’s “owner” (the person who had their identity stolen). Godoy said when this happens, the person from whom the identity was stolen assumes the tickets were issued in error and throws them away.

Instead, she said, “Go to the DMV and find out if the car is registered in your name ... or call the DMV investigations (not the field office) number and they will tell you the last time you were in the DMV, which office and whether a photograph was issued.”

Trusts and estates

Renee Linton with the Educating Seniors Project, a subsidiary of the Trusts and Estates Section of the State Bar of California, said insufficient planning could lead to “undue influence” or scams. “Plan for the future and plan before you become incapacitated,” she said. “Ensure you have a successor in place, someone who can take over for you should something happen to you to pay your bills and protect your assets.” By planning ahead, she said, families and seniors can avoid the panic of being rushed in case of emergency.

Banking on that rushed thinking, she said “trust mills” churn out one-size-fits-all trusts that do not meet an individual’s needs. Red flags that indicate a company might be a trust mill include patriotic names and eagles and flags in their advertising. “They also say if you don’t do what they suggest the government will collect on your estate,” she pointed out. “Or, if there is missing information — they are unwilling to provide the cost, benefits and liabilities in writing; or if they discourage a second opinion or pitch the cost as only being good for that one day.”

Seniors, she said, are more likely to be subject to these trust and estate scams for a number of reasons. “Historically, seniors are the targets because they have saved their money and have more money than a younger person. Your generation trusts people, so you let people in, but letting other people in your life opens the door for fraud. You are retired, therefore you are home more often. If a senior has lost a spouse, they can get lonely. If the abuser is a family member, the elder might not want to get that family member in trouble so they will not report it.”

Common scams

Rather than focus on one specific field, Deputy District Attorney Paul Greenwood offered insight into typical scams that target seniors — primarily jewelry theft, contractor swindles and phone stings. He also provided his top 10 tips for keeping seniors safe (see sidebar below).

Because of its small size, jewelry is the No. 1 item stolen from seniors, he said. “Unfortunately, jewelry is often stolen by a family member, caregiver or an unwatched tradesperson in the house for a legitimate reason,” he said. To protect yourself, he said, “Inventory all jewelry by taking a photograph of it and keep that photo separate from the actual jewelry. If it’s valuable, have it appraised.”

To feel safer about having a caregiver in the home, Greenwood suggested those looking for such a person go through a bonded and insured agency, and ask what kind of background check it does before hiring someone.

He also advised about contractor scams. “Any contractor doing more than $500 worth of work has to have a license from the state,” he said, which allows for all work to be accountable, so less likely to scam clients out of excessive amounts of money. “You can tell when contractors are unlicensed because they will ask for an excessive deposit. In California, the most a deposit can be is 10 percent or $1,000, whichever is less, as a holding deposit. So on a $5,000 roofing repair, the most they can ask for is $500.”

To avoid being scammed over the phone, “Use Caller ID to your advantage,” he said. “If you receive a call from a private or out- of-area phone number, be on guard. Even if the caller has a local area code, but is unknown, still be cautious.” The latest scam is someone posing as a lieutenant from the Sheriff’s Department claiming to have a warrant out for your arrest because you didn’t show up for jury duty or didn’t pay your taxes — which could be avoided if you give “the lieutenant” money. When they call, it’s from a phone number with a (858), (619) or (760) area code. “People think it’s local, so they panic,” he said. ”Just hang up and call the Sheriff’s Office to verify or report the scam.”

As part of the presentation Atkins told the audience, “These speakers were not meant to scare you, but to make you more aware of how to protect yourself.” Atkins said her office representatives are on hand to hear citizen concerns at 4 p.m. on the third Thursday of every month at the library, 7555 Draper Ave.

10 Safety Tips for Seniors

Deputy District Attorney Paul Greenwood, who has been with the District Attorney’s office for 22 years (19 of them as head of the Elder Abuse Prosecution Unit), offered his top safety tips:

  1. Be very careful who you hire as caregiver.
  2. Inventory all jewelry.
  3. Shred everything you are going to throw away if it has any information about you on it: Your address, name, bank, etc.
  4. Protect incoming and outgoing mail: If mail is left in an unlocked mailbox with the red flag up, the thieves are going to see it and steal it.
  5. Get some kind of credit check done: Doing credit searches or signing up for a credit monitoring service is a great way to prevent credit card fraud.
  6. Use Caller ID, and be on guard if a call comes from a blocked or private number.
  7. Any letter or phone call saying you are the winner of a foreign lottery is a scam.
  8. If you know someone who is blind or poor sighted, encourage them to have their bank statements sent to a trusted advisor or family member who can read it to them.
  9. Know the limits of what a contractor can request as a holding deposit.
  10. Be very careful when you open your door. If there is a knock at the door, even if the person is in a uniform, do not answer it unless you know who it is or are expecting them. If in doubt, call the company they reportedly represent and verify they are supposed to be there.