I recently attended the Senior Crime Prevention University Program, presented by Nelson Brewster, MA, from The Pennsylvania Attorney General’s office. It was one of the best seminars I have ever attended. Unfortunately, there is not a central registry where you can find out the times and locations for other presentations of this program. However, if you are part of a senior citizen group, your group can contact the Attorney General’s office to schedule a presentation for your group. While my writing about the program is not as good as being there to hear it, I will share what I learned in the hopes that it will help prevent you from being a crime victim. Most of this information came from Mr. Brewster’s presentation, but in several sections I have added additional material that I believe is helpful.
Mr. Brewster presented the three A’s of crime prevention: Aware, Avoid, and Alert. He said our goal as seniors is to become “Scam Smart.” Con artists truly are wolves in sheep’s clothing. Their “nice guy” approach is designed to have you lower your guard. They have a great sense of timing – for instance, doing home repair scams after a natural disaster, and they are always looking for new victims.
Seven different types of scams were presented with tips on how not to become a victim:
• Charitable Contributions – Scams get you to contribute to nonexistent organizations with good sounding names or to organizations where most of the money collected goes not to the charitable organization but to the company doing the collecting.
- Charitable organizations are registered with the Pennsylvania Department of State (1-800-732-0999). Call them to be sure you are dealing with a legitimate charity.
- By never agreeing to donate over the phone, you can prevent inadvertently giving out personal information that could be used for identity theft. My wife and I have had a long-standing policy never to give or promise to give money over the phone, even if it is a charity we have given to in the past.
- Keep records of your gifts. This not only helps at tax time, but it helps prevent unscrupulous people from adding additional gifts to your account.
- Do not invite strangers into your home to give them charitable donations.
- Do not give cash.
- Keep charities accountable by asking the “W” questions: who, what, when, where, and why.
• Estate Planning – Some individuals try to sell products and services that do not benefit the older individual but provide the seller with lucrative commissions.
- Be wary of invitations to free dinner seminars, especially if the host is not an established local company.
- Be wary of high-pressure sales tactics.
- Take the time to research what estate planning tools are right for you. There is no “one size fits all” strategy.
- It is wise to check with your attorney before signing any contracts.
- Remember that if you sign a contract, Pennsylvania has a three day “cooling off” period in which you can void the contract. That action, however, is up to you to initiate.
• Home Improvements – These scams take several forms, from using inferior materials to do substandard work to taking payment but not doing or finishing the work. Usually the scam artists will approach the homeowner (victim) saying they noticed a problem they can fix.
- Be wary when you are approached with this line, “I have just enough leftover materials from a job down the street that I can use to fix your problem for less than anyone else.”
- Be wary of nomadic contractors. These are people who often follow storms and offer to fix storm damage quickly.
- Be wary when they ask for the money up front, especially if they ask for all the money up front. The Home Improvement Construction Act limits up front money to one third of the cost of any project exceeding $1,000.
- Be sure to get a contract. Without a contract, it is your word against theirs if they do not do what they promised. Also, with a contact, you have a three day “cooling off” period in which you can cancel the contract if you change your mind.
- Most contractors must be registered with the Office of the Attorney General. Their contractor number must appear on their contracts and all home improvement upgrades of over $500. Contracts should state the start date, the finish date, and the total cost of the project.
- It is wise to get estimates from three different contractors. It is also wise to check the reputation of these contractors.
• Power of Attorney (POA) – In the hands of a trustworthy individual, a power of attorney can insure your financial obligations will be taken care of if you become incapacitated. In the wrong hands a power of attorney can lead to financial exploitation.
- There is a section at the end of your POA document called the “Acknowledgement,” which explains the duties of the POA. Be sure both you and your selected POA agent understand these rules.
- As long as you have your mental faculties, a POA document does not affect your ability to make your own financial decisions.
- Guardianship is not the same thing as a POA. A guardian is someone appointed by a judge to handle the financial affairs of an individual who no longer has the capacity to manage his or her own financial affairs.
- A POA has to keep your money separate from his/her own money.
- A POA can only spend your money for your benefit; he/she cannot spend your money on things that benefit the POA.
- The POA must keep records of how he/she spends your money.
- If you suspect someone is using a POA to “steal” from an older person, you should report this to the Protective Service workers in your local Aging office. Financial exploitation is a form of Elder Abuse.
There is not space to finish in today’s article all the information that Mr. Brewster provided. The other areas in which seniors need to be “Scam Smart” will be covered in a later article.
John W. Reese, M. S. CDP
Elder Care Coordinator
Keystone Elder Law P.C