REGION – Season’s Scammings. As we rush into the season for holiday celebrations, it’s necessary to be reminded that this time of giving is also the season for scamming. While ongoing fraud and scam activities remain in play, here are some of the seasonal crimes we can expect.
- Medicare Advantage Schemes – Medicare Open Enrollment always brings on the barrage of advertising for enrollment or change in Medicare plans pitched by an ever-growing cast of celebrities. These sales pitches are not scams, but as I like to say, the devil is in the details. Along with the legitimate promotions, there are numerous fraudulent offers appearing in social media, email, and on phone calls. Some general tips: Don’t initiate contact by calling or responding to any of these offers. Keep in mind that there is no such thing as “Free.” While you may be offered numerous benefits associated with specific plan enrollment, they come with a cost, and it is often with increased co-pays, deductibles, or premiums. Once you respond to an offer, the promoter is free to continue contacting you. In terms of the fraudsters, they will ask for personal information such as a Medicare or Social Security numbers and birth dates. Frequently, the intended victim is asked to provide a credit card number to “streamline” billing. Providing any information at this point can come back to haunt you. Anyone considering a new plan or a change should visit the Medicare website, www.medicare.gov, where information on all available plans, sorted by state, is available and includes costs.
- Charity Fraud – A criminal with a computer and basic skills can easily design a convincing website for a fake charity, send email notices to thousands of recipients, and promote the scam in social media. In addition, fraudulent phone calls and text messages deliver messages of extreme need with the expectation that some recipients will fall for the ruses.
Some general tips: Beware of emails with a sender address including @gmail or @hotmail. Website addresses (URLs) should display the name of the charity followed by “.org,” such as www.redcross.org.
Resist the plea to make donations on the phone, by website, or via text, regardless of message “urgency.” Instead, ask to have a pledge card mailed to you. In my experience, the criminals will not send pledge cards; after all, that costs them money.
Unless you are personally familiar with the charity or program beyond name recognition, research before donating. Some “charities” have a particularly bad reputation for not using the donations for the purposes intended by donors. For example, I received a call requesting a donation for a police welfare association. I asked the caller two questions which, by law, must be answered: “Are you a professional fundraiser?” He said, “Yes.” “What percentage of the money raised goes to funding the projects?” He said 16%. Needless to say, I did not donate.
There are some unbiased organizations that provide assistance in doing research before donating: www.charitynavigator.org, www.charitywatch.org, www.give.org, and www.guidestar.org. Their websites provide commentary and ratings that include information on transparency and dedication to the cause the organization supports.
A final word – give locally. There are organizations in your community or county that need help and with which you are able to see the fruits of their labor.
- Utility Fraud – During the winter months, we witness a dramatic increase in the number of fraudulent phone calls made in the name of local power companies. These calls threaten cuts in electrical service due to missed or insufficient payment of a bill. The scammer uses intimidation and fear, usually requesting gift cards for immediate payment. In many cases, the criminal will wait on the phone until the cards are obtained.
Some general tips: Legitimate companies and government agencies do not accept gift cards as payment. As soon as payment by gift card is requested, hang up the phone. Keep in mind, consumers are protected by a set of laws that prevent termination of vital services unless specific steps are taken by the utility company, including written notice of service termination.
Elliott Greenblott is a retired educator and coordinator of the AARP Vermont Fraud Watch Network who produces the CATV program, Mr. Scammer, distributed by GNAT-TV in Sunderland, Vt.