Common-sense precautions can avert scams

Just as savvy seniors are often on the lookout for people or places that might put them in harm’s way, they also need to be equally diligent when it comes to con artists and scammers.

Nearly 25 million Americans (11.2 percent of the adult population) experience consumer fraud each year, according to a 2004 survey by the Federal Trade Commission. Scammers and con artists develop new or evolving scams that target seniors, making them a vulnerable population.

Throughout the year, the nonprofit National Crime Prevention Council urges seniors to take these common-sense precautions:

• Be alert and astute. Do not give any personal information over the phone or Internet to an unfamiliar company or caller. This includes your credit card numbers and their expiration dates, your Social Security number, driver license number, bank account numbers and personal information, such as your mother’s maiden name. Even if you are told it is only for “identification” or “verification” purposes, this information can be used for unauthorized credit card charges or bank account debits.

• Use direct deposit for incoming payments. Your mail — both incoming and outgoing — can be vulnerable, especially during tax season when your mailbox is fair game for theft of sensitive financial information. If your Social Security or Supplemental Security Income check or other payment is delivered by mail to an unlocked box, you also may be at risk for theft.

• Direct deposit eliminates the risk of lost or stolen checks, reduces fraud and gives people faster access to their money on payment day. It also protects against identity theft. For more information about enrolling in direct deposit of your Social Security or SSI payment, call the Go Direct toll-free helpline at (800) 333-1795 or sign up online at

• Ink it. A reputable company will put offers in writing. Ask for written information to be mailed to you and review it carefully. Con artists often use official-looking forms and language and bold graphics to deceive their victims. Check the company’s record with the Better Business Bureau before you make a decision. If you receive items in the mail that you didn’t order, you are under no obligation to pay for them.

• Also be wary of emails promising “free” vacations, quick cures for health concerns, foreign lotteries, work-at-home offers, get-rich-quick investments, or requests for donations to charities you never heard of. If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

• Know your rights. Register your phone number with the National Do Not Call Registry at to stop telemarketing calls. If someone rips you off, report it to local law enforcement, your city or state consumer protection office, or a consumer advocacy group.