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May is Older Americans Month -- Seniors Should Stay Alert for Scammers Who Prey on the Elderly

2012 column date: 
Friday, May 4, 2012
2012 column text: 
Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen

May is Older Americans Month, a good time to focus on consumer issues affecting our seniors. While everyone is a potential target, older consumers are particularly vulnerable to fraudulent schemes, making them a favorite target of scammers. Unfortunately, many seniors are victimized each year through a host of crooked schemes, suffering financial injury in the millions of dollars.


Some frauds are designed specifically to victimize seniors. A current example is the so-called “grandparent scam.” Here's how it works. Using information available on the internet or elsewhere, a fraudster telephones an elderly consumer and pretends to be the person's grandchild with some sort of dire emergency, such as having been in an accident or arrested in another country.


Inevitably, the “grandchild” needs money immediately wired to him or her, and asks that the grandparent not tell the grandchild's parents. Frequently the call will come at a time designed to catch the grandparent off guard, such as early in the morning or late at night. Unfortunately, this scam works. Every year seniors are defrauded of millions of dollars by this scam and its many variations.


Charitable solicitors also prey heavily on older consumers, deliberately taking advantage of their generosity. While there are many legitimate charities, many telephone solicitations for charitable donations result in the vast majority of the donations going to a for-profit telemarketer, with very little money going to the actual charity. Worse, donating through one of these for-profit telemarketers can lead to the consumer being called more frequently in the future, and for many other charities. One practice that has changed little involves the promise of a prize or free service to lure the consumer into agreeing to purchase items that are unwanted, overpriced, or both.


Finally, identity theft continues to grow as a serious problem affecting all consumers, including older citizens. While sometimes the consumer has no way to prevent this, scammers often succeed in duping consumers to hand over their credit card, bank account or other financial information, which they then use to steal money using the consumer's identity.


To enhance my office's ability to keep Wisconsin consumers safe from fraudulent practices, I recently created an independent Consumer Protection and Antitrust Unit within the Wisconsin Department of Justice. The new unit will continue the traditional consumer protection efforts of the Department, with additional staff that will increase the resources available to address consumer fraud.


Here are some basic tips for avoiding consumer frauds:


-Take time to think about a request or offer. Scammers do best when their targets feel like they must make an immediate decision or take immediate action. If you feel pressured to do something before you are completely comfortable, trust your instincts and delay the decision until your questions and concerns have been answered.


-Be wary of requests to wire money if you are not absolutely sure where it is going and who is going to receive it. If you get a suspicious call from or involving a grandchild or other family member, try to contact the relative or other family members first to verify the facts. If you are the grandchild or family member of an older person, warn them of this scheme and tell them that you would not put them in this position.


- The old adage remains a good guide: If it seems to be too good to be true, it probably is. This applies to claims you have been awarded a prize, won a lottery, or are entitled to “free” goods or services. Check out the business or promotion carefully (the Better Business Bureau is one good resource) before agreeing to participate.


-Realize that responding to a telephone solicitation for a charitable donation may mean that less than 10% (and sometimes virtually none) of your donation may actually be spent for charitable purposes.


If you believe you have been victimized by dishonest conduct, you should file a complaint with the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection. You can download a complaint form or file an online complaint at:


You also can call the Consumer Protection Hotline at 1-800-422-7128.