ST. HELENA — The IRS called, threatening you with arrest unless you immediately pay the taxes you owe.
You left a check for the electric company in your mailbox for the letter carrier to take, but your bill never gets paid and someone else gets the money.
These are just a couple examples of scams discussed during the Elder Abuse Scams Panel held at Rianda House Senior Activity Center in St. Helena on Tuesday. The panel, although geared toward seniors, provided information pertinent to everyone with an identity to protect.
“As a consumer, it’s important for you to do your homework,” said Jane Hinshaw, an investigator with the Napa County District Attorney’s Office. Hinshaw receives calls about different scams at least every other day, she said during the discussion. There have been a few success stories where victims have gotten their money back, but that isn’t the norm. That’s why it’s important for people to be careful with their information, she said.
There are a few common types of scams, many of which happen over the phone or through the Internet. (The IRS, by the way, won’t call you to collect, Hinshaw said.)
Hinshaw explained that scammers are interested in collecting information about your identity and your bank account. These professional callers may sound legitimate over the phone, but many of them will use what you say against you. Be careful not to give callers that you don’t know information about you or your family inadvertently, she said.
A common scam is for someone to call claiming to be a family member trapped in another country and needing financial assistance immediately. The caller will try to make the recipient of the call feel that the situation is dire. And since it’s an emergency, Hinshaw said, you’ll respond more quickly.
She calls these interactions “high-pressure calls.”
If you feel this pressure, she said, it’s a sure sign to walk away. It’s not an emergency unless someone is bleeding, she said.
If you fall for one of these scams or give any information over the phone, it is likely that your information will be shared and you will be targeted again, Hinshaw said.
The same thing can happen with over-the-phone giving. If a charity solicits for money over the phone, Hinshaw said to ask them to send information through the mail. If they are legitimate, they should be happy to comply. Public services, like police and fire departments, won’t raise money over the phone, she said, so don’t fall for it.
Hinshaw also warned people in attendance to be careful about sending personal information through emails. A bank will never ask you to send your Social Security number through an email, she asserted.
She also said people have used Craigslist to perpetuate a couple of different scams.
One is a check scam – someone will ask you to cash their check for them, promising you a portion of the money for your trouble. The victim will end up giving money or another check to the scammer, and then the original check bounces.
Hinshaw suggested not meeting anyone from Craigslist alone – sometimes this is a scam, she said. A person may be meeting you in order to sell you something, but instead they rob you. Or, someone on Craigslist may advertise a nice item for sale, but when you get there it is substantially less valuable than suggested. And never pay cash up front, Hinshaw said.
That includes contractors. Hinshaw said that contractors in California are allowed to ask for only 10 percent up front. They should also be registered as a contractor through the state – something you should check on before you make any payments.
“You need to be very, very careful” and know your rights, Hinshaw said. Sign up for the Do Not Call list, monitor your credit, always empty your mailbox (and drop checks off at the post office or a post office box), and check the credentials of those in your home whether they’re contractors or caregivers, she said.
Napa County has a new caregiver ordinance that may help reduce scams, especially against seniors. By making sure your caregiver, or a family member’s caregiver, has a permit, you can make sure that people with criminal histories aren’t being invited into your home, Hinshaw said. The permit process, which includes a background check, will help ensure that you don’t hire someone who is “likely to steal you blind,” she said.
“The elderly are so vulnerable,” said Catherine Singels of Calistoga. Singels said that the seniors at Rancho de Calistoga, where she lives, would definitely benefit from a discussion on scams. Recently, she said that some of the cars at the mobile home park have been burglarized. They took a copy of her registration from her vehicle.
Hinshaw said that you should never leave your car unlocked or leave valuables, even documents, in it. She also explained that seniors are sometimes more vulnerable due to their age.
“At some point, our brain stops recognizing deception,” she said.