Tips for Avoiding Frauds and Scams

100 dollar bills on a yellow legal pad with fraud written on it

By Janie Price

In its ongoing effort to improve the lives of seniors living in Pine Knoll Shores, the town’s Council on Aging hosted a forum on frauds and scams in January.

Pine Knoll Shores Police Chief Ryan Thompson and Financial Advisor Cheryl Mansfield from Edward Jones shared examples of scams and offered tips on how to avoid becoming a victim.

Over the years, scammers have become more sophisticated in their efforts—and very often their intended victims are older people who may be more trusting or less familiar with technology.

Scammers may contact you via email, text, phone (landlines and cell phones), U.S. mail and can even show up at your door. It’s best to take the time to be sure an offer doesn’t sound too good to be true. 

Chief Thompson said that the police department regularly receives calls from citizens who need help in determining if they are in danger of being scammed (or in the worst cases, if they have already been scammed).

Common Scams

Chief Thompson and Ms. Mansfield shared some of the most common scams currently making the rounds.

Grandparent scam

A call comes in, and the person on the line says, “It’s me, Grandma” or some such familiar greeting. The grandparent will often respond, “Is that you, Tommy?”—and the hook is set.

The person on the line will tell the grandparent that he has been arrested or injured and needs help and will pass the phone to a phony medical person or attorney to arrange for payment of fees, usually by prepaid cash or gift cards.

Best action: Hang up on the call and immediately reach out to the family member to check that there is no emergency.

Collections fraud

This one can come in different versions. It may be someone on the phone claiming to be from the Internal Revenue Service or a local utility company demanding immediate payment to avoid arrest or having the utility cut off. Again, they will want you to pay with prepaid cash or gift cards.

Best action: Do not fall for scare tactics. Hang up and look up the number for the utility to call to be sure your account is in order, and keep in mind that no reputable company or government agency will ask for payment by prepaid cash or gift cards.

Amazon scam

You may receive an email that appears to be from Amazon saying that a large purchase has been made on your account, with a link to click to check on the status of your account. If you click on the link in that email, you may give someone access to your computer.

Best action: Do not click on the link. Take a look at the email address, and in all likelihood it will not be from Amazon. Mark the email as spam and open a new window to check on your Amazon account.

Romance scam

This one may involve somebody who has friended you on Facebook or a game site such as Words With Friends. As your conversations become more frequent and “friendly,” the person may express a desire to visit but will mention a need for funds to make the trip or to clear some barrier to making the trip.

They may ask for wired funds with a promise to repay you, but if you fall for this scam and you send the first wire, more may be requested. The bottom line: you will  not be able to recover your funds.

Sweepstakes scam

You may receive a call from Publishers Clearing House or a similar company that you have won an expensive item and all you need to do is pay the taxes on that item to collect it—again asking for payment with gift cards.

Social Security scam

A call comes in from a person claiming to be with the Social Security Administration with a tale about a problem with your social security number that may affect your benefits. The problem can be solved by sending a fee by gift cards, a money order or cash.

Medicare scam

A call comes in from a “representative” who wants to be sure you have signed up for all the benefits you should be receiving, and they may even offer an 800 number for you to call. Once you get to the “right” person, you will be asked for personal information that will make it easy for your identity to be stolen.

Home theft

Also called deed fraud, this scam is one in which a person can register a fraudulent deed for your property. You would think that a title search would prevent this, but it is possible to register a deed without a title search.

Construction scams

Unscrupulous contractors may knock on your door offering to make repairs and ask for upfront funds to purchase supplies. Similarly, following a hurricane, a contractor may stop by offering to put a tarp on your home (for a large fee) with a promise to come back later to fix the roof. In all likelihood, you will never see either of these contractors or your money again.

Pine straw scam

This one wasn’t covered in the forum, but has come up since then. Somebody may come by your house with a load of pine straw and ask if you are interested in having your flower beds refreshed. They will quote you a reasonable price, but once the work is done will present you with a bill for multiples of the quote—and then resort to threats and intimidation to collect the new fee.

This is not an exhaustive list of scam and fraud attempts, but it does give an idea of the variety of ways somebody will try to get access to your private information or steal your money.

If you are in doubt at all as to the legitimacy of an offer, call the police department during business hours at 252-247-2474. After business hours, call the Communications Center at 252-726-1911 and ask to have a Pine Knoll Shores police officer call you.

Avoid Becoming a Victim

Senior man looking concerned while talking on the phone

 A few more guidelines to help you avoid becoming a victim:

  • Report attempted scams to the police department. Our local police department makes it a point to stay on top of the latest scams and officers are ready to help you avoid becoming a victim. Chief Thompson says that he has never received a call regarding a suspected scam when it turned out to be legitimate. If it seems too good to be true, it probably is. Even if you manage to escape a fraud or scam attempt unscathed, report it to the police department. They want to know when this type of activity is occurring in our area.
  • Use caller ID to screen calls. If you don’t recognize a number, let it go to voicemail. In most cases, a scammer will not bother to leave a message. If they do leave a message, don’t call the number they provide; look up the number yourself if you feel you must return the call.
  • Realize that email is not secure. Never pass private information to another person via email (not even to a person you know to be legitimate). If you pass personal information even to somebody you know, do it by phone or in person.
  • Education is your best protection. Be informed about scams and how you can be tricked into making bad decisions. If you are ready with your quick response, the scammer will be shut down before he even gets started.
  • Trust your instincts. This may be the most important tip of all. Walk away when your inner voice tells you to do so.

According to the Federal Trade Commission, more than nine million Americans fall prey to identity theft every year, resulting in a loss of $36.5 billion annually. Much of that money is never recovered. Be an informed consumer, and keep your guard up for people who want to take advantage of you.

The Pine Knoll Shores Council on Aging is interested in hearing from you on topics you would like for them to present in future forums. Contact Council Chair Cindy Schersching at cynnc07@gmail.com with suggestions, and visit the council’s Facebook page to learn more about upcoming events.

A Final Word from Police Chief Thompson

Lock your vehicle doors at all times, and don’t leave valuables or firearms in your vehicle. A surprising number of thefts occur because owners fail to lock their cars.

In addition, lock your home doors, even during the day.

Don’t make it easy for criminals to take advantage of you.

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