County officials give tips to stop senior scams

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Nearly 100 seniors from across Nassau County gathered at the Franklin Square Senior Center on March 19 for the first in a series of public forums seeking to educate older adults about the rising wave of scams targeting them. County Executive Laura Curran, who kicked off the new initiative with Police Commissioner Patrick Ryder, warned seniors that they were the primary targets of schemes such as phone scams and fake emails.

“You can get anxious from all these calls, and they prey on these anxieties,” Curran said. “But don’t be afraid. Call the police.”

The Nassau County Police Department reported 262 cases of phone scams last year, with nearly half of them targeting older adults. Officer Dan Johannessen, who presented material on how to spot scams, said that there has been a 19 percent increase in scams since 2015. Johannessen explained that there are four typical types of phone scams, including calls about a family member being kidnapped or arrested, calls from fake government agencies and utility companies and calls about fake prizes being won.

The NCPD recently reported a case about a 79-year-old Plainview man who was scammed out of more than $147,000 through a fake Publishing Clearing House Sweepstakes call. It had been explained to the victim that he needed to make multiple deposits to pay for fees and taxes related to the sweepstakes. Johannessen added that while stories like these might seem rare, they can happen to anyone.

“There’s been victims that give thousands to these guys,” Johannessen said. “You may think it’s impossible to fall for this, but these [scammers] are professionals at what they do, and there are some people who lose money and are embarrassed and never report it.”

Mutual Concerns Director Peggie Como, of Sea Cliff, said many of her seniors have been victimized by these calls over the years, herself included. Recently her uncle went to the bank to withdraw $10,000 because he thought his grandson was in trouble. The bank teller, suspicious of the request, had Como’s uncle call the grandson. Sure enough, it was a hoax. “They get so panic-stricken,” Como said.

Although caller ID is a useful tool to spot scammers, Johannessen warned that new technology has allowed these con artists to mask their phone numbers and appear as though the calls come from legitimate organizations. Reports have come in about scam calls with the IDs of the IRS, PSEG Long Island and even local police departments. And the same could be true about email scams, Johannessen added.

With better technology and new tricks, scammers are able to highjack people’s email addresses and send links with viruses to the victims’ friends and relatives. Police told seniors to practice hovering over links with their cursors before clicking on them to see where it will take them. Johannessen also said that some scammers make up email addresses that appear legitimate at first sight, disguising themselves as utility companies or customer service departments, but a simple Google search to verify the address can help reveal whether the emails are genuine.

Jane McGilloway, of Sea Cliff, said someone claiming to be an old friend of her father’s requested via email that $1,500 be wired to the individual in Florida; she recognized this as a scam. To keep local seniors attune she drew up an information sheet consisting of what to do and not do if they receive a scam call or email.

Scams are on the rise across Long Island. Suffolk County Police Department officials announced their own crackdown on phone, email and Internet scams during a March 7 news conference. They added that crowd-funding scams — which urge people to donate to a local charity or family, but in reality “organizers” take the cash for themselves — are also on the rise. Both Suffolk and Nassau police departments asked seniors to contact police if they should suspect a charity site of fraud.

Ryder added that legitimate organizations would never ask residents for money over the phone and warned seniors not only to hang up their phones, but also to jot down the callers’ numbers and report them to police.

“There’s been too many victims so far,” Ryder told the seniors at the forum. “After today, you’ll be a victim no more.”

County officials said they would hold additional forums throughout Nassau in the near future. NCPD officers added that a new scam asks seniors to purchase gift cards as a form of money. They urged seniors, family members and retail employees to be on the lookout for those purchasing gift cards in large quantities.

Alyssa Seidman contributed to this story.