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Local advocates for elderly warn of information-age cons

  • Janice Garrett, the director of the consumer protection division of the Northwestern District Attorney's Office,  talking about consumer protection Thursday morning.

    Janice Garrett, the director of the consumer protection division of the Northwestern District Attorney's Office, talking about consumer protection Thursday morning. Purchase photo reprints »

  • Ann Burke  talking about consumer protection Thursday morning. <br/><br/>

    Ann Burke talking about consumer protection Thursday morning.

    Purchase photo reprints »

  • <br/>Jan Stiefel  talking about consumer protection Thursday morning. <br/><br/><br/>


    Jan Stiefel talking about consumer protection Thursday morning.


    Purchase photo reprints »

  • Ann Burke, Janice Garrett and Jan Stiefel  talking about consumer protection Thursday morning.

    Ann Burke, Janice Garrett and Jan Stiefel talking about consumer protection Thursday morning. Purchase photo reprints »

  • <br/>Janice Garrett, the director of the consumer protection division of the Northwestern District Attorney's Office,  talking about consumer protection Thursday morning. <br/><br/><br/>


    Janice Garrett, the director of the consumer protection division of the Northwestern District Attorney's Office, talking about consumer protection Thursday morning.


    Purchase photo reprints »

  • Ann Burke, Janice Garrett and Jan Stiefel  talking about consumer protection Thursday morning. <br/><br/><br/><br/>

    Ann Burke, Janice Garrett and Jan Stiefel talking about consumer protection Thursday morning.



    Purchase photo reprints »

  • <br/><br/>Ann Burke, Janice Garrett and Jan Stiefel  talking about consumer protection Thursday morning. <br/><br/>



    Ann Burke, Janice Garrett and Jan Stiefel talking about consumer protection Thursday morning.

    Purchase photo reprints »

  • Janice Garrett, the director of the consumer protection division of the Northwestern District Attorney's Office,  talking about consumer protection Thursday morning.
  • Ann Burke  talking about consumer protection Thursday morning. <br/><br/>
  • <br/>Jan Stiefel  talking about consumer protection Thursday morning. <br/><br/><br/>
  • Ann Burke, Janice Garrett and Jan Stiefel  talking about consumer protection Thursday morning.
  • <br/>Janice Garrett, the director of the consumer protection division of the Northwestern District Attorney's Office,  talking about consumer protection Thursday morning. <br/><br/><br/>
  • Ann Burke, Janice Garrett and Jan Stiefel  talking about consumer protection Thursday morning. <br/><br/><br/><br/>
  • <br/><br/>Ann Burke, Janice Garrett and Jan Stiefel  talking about consumer protection Thursday morning. <br/><br/>

Another filled out piles of sweepstakes notices, hoping to win, but, in truth, not knowing whether they were legitimate contests.

A third was conned into giving out her Social Security number over the phone.

These are just three examples of the sort of incidents that concern advocates for the elderly, who say senior citizens can fall prey to unscrupulous con artists as they advance in age.

“Many are home more and live alone so they don’t have a support network in any way to catch these things,” said Valerie Flory, director of the Home Care Program at Highland Valley Elder Services.

While consumer protection isn’t specifically in their job descriptions, the frontline care advisers at Highland Valley are often among the first to hear from elders about scams, fraud and other interactions with unsavory individuals. And they need to be armed with resources when such issues arise.

That’s why consumer protection experts spent last Thursday morning at Highland Valley’s headquarters in Florence, where they shared information about a bevy of consumer protection issues including privacy, money management and debt, identity theft, fraud and scams.

Some seniors, though by no means all, are especially vulnerable to these ploys. Not only are they trusting of others, but they’re also home more often during the day, Flory said. Some are lonely and live by themselves, while others are dealing with failing cognitive skills.

Flory said many senior citizens respond in the moment and they may not remember later what they agreed to — or they aren’t aware that they are agreeing to anything in the first place.

“We get a lot of calls on all of these issues, especially from seniors,” said Ann E. Lynch, assistant attorney general with the state attorney general’s office in Springfield.

In many cases, the calls are referred to the Consumer Protection Division of the Northwestern district attorney’s office, one of 19 local consumer programs in the state that works in cooperation with the attorney general’s office.

The office, led by director Janice Garrett and case manager Caroline Smith, focuses on outreach and prevention services for consumers in Hampshire and Franklin counties, and also mediates disputes between consumers and businesses.

In recognition of National Consumer Protection Week the first week in March, the three experts offered several workshops this month to highlight some of the major issues facing consumers, young and old, in the Valley. In addition to the in-service training at Highland Valley, two workshops were held for the general public in Greenfield and a third took place at the Bernardston Senior Center. Here’s a rundown of some of the highlights:

Credit and debt

The panel focused on several specific tips related to credit and debt, including how to deal with debt collectors, the importance of credit reports, identity theft, how to tell if a website is secure and whether it’s wise to co-sign a loan.

As intimidating as debt collection calls can be, Garrett cautions consumers not to ignore them. It’s best to try to sort the problem out, especially if there’s a mistake or if it’s a debt that’s been reconciled.

She said consumers have a right to verify the debt and to ask for the name, phone number and address of the debt collection agency.

Lynch said there are laws that spell out specifically what debt collectors can say and when they can say it. See related information box, this page.

Consumers are also advised to request free credit reports three times a year — one from each major credit reporting agency, staggered four months apart.

Victims of identity theft have specific rights to mark their credit reports with fraud alerts. Lynch said these alerts help limit access to the reports and require companies that want to loan money to take extra steps to verify they are loaning money to the right person.

Consumers can also put a “security freeze” on their credit reports. The service is free for people who have been victims of identity theft, and costs a small fee for others.

“Basically, you can prevent your credit report from being given out without your authorization,” Lynch said. “You can really control access to that information and make sure additional damage is not done.”

Online security, robo calls

As for secure websites, Lynch often advises people, especially seniors, to look for the lock symbol next to the words “https” in the url bar at the beginning of a website. The “s” in this case stands for “secure,” she said.

Even though it’s secure, consumers should still limit to the basics the amount of information they provide online, like their name, address and payment information. Other information, like Social Security numbers, is not necessary to make a purchase.

Consumers should also think hard about co-signing a loan, given that they will be on the hook for the bill if the person who needs help getting the loan defaults.

“You don’t want to co-sign a loan if you can’t pay it back,” Garrett said.

Consumer advocates say the number of complaints about telemarketing “robo calls” continues to be a problem throughout the country, so much so that the Federal Trade Commission has issued a simple message to consumers: just hang up.

“Don’t engage them,” Garrett said. “Don’t say ‘stop calling me.’ Just hang up.”

Garrett said technology has allowed telemarketing companies to reach people more easily, more cheaply and faster.

“A lot of these calls are done by computer now,” she said. “It’s really inexpensive and fast and they can just blast you with these calls. They also now have the ability to change the area code.”

Giving a response, even if it’s trying to reason with a caller, will only trigger more calls.

“If you respond, you get put on a list and get sold to other telemarketers,” Smith said. “No matter what you say.”

It is still legal for charitable organizations to solicit money by phone without violating do-not-call rules. Lynch advises people to research the charity before giving and to take time.

“They will be grateful for that donation the next day,” she said.

Scams still prevalent

Money-wiring schemes — lottery and sweepstakes winnings, “Granny scams,” and mystery shopping, to name a few — vary from year to year, but the aim to trick consumers into giving them money remains the same.

“We get calls every week from elders who have lost thousands of dollars to these scams,” Lynch said. “It’s really sad. You want to fix it, but you never get that money back. Education up front is really the best we can do for everyone.”

The basic premise of these scams goes like this: A con artist will send the victim what appears to be a legitimate cashier’s check and ask the person to deposit it into his bank account, keep a certain amount and send the balance back to the scammer to cover fees. Soon after the individual deposits the check, however, it bounces.

People who run these scams have adjusted their methods in recent months. Instead of the cashier’s check, they’re asking people to buy pre-paid debit cards at a local store in order to collect their “winnings.”

When the person does this and calls the scammer back, they are asked to read a 14-digit number on the back of the card. That’s the number the scammer needs to withdraw the money from the card.

Retail, auto sales

For the last several years, retail and auto sales have topped the list of complaints in the Consumer Protection Division.

Retail sales encompasses a wide range of issues, from billing disputes to warranties, mail solicitations, defective products, failure to deliver and return policies.

Garrett zeroed in on return policies during her talk.

“It’s really important for everyone, including seniors, to know what return policies are,” Garrett said.

A company can use any return policy it wants, as long as consumers are told about it before they make a purchase.

“If it’s on the receipt, that’s after you’ve made the purchase,” Garrett said. “If you don’t see it, ask.”

Auto sales lead to many consumer complaints, whether it be from false advertising or violations of so-called lemon laws.

Car buyers in Massachusetts have a lot of rights. Chief among those rights are the lemon law and used vehicle warranty laws, though both come with time constraints that kick in once the paperwork is complete and a consumer drives off the lot.

The lemon law, which applies to both dealers and private-party transactions, allows a buyer to demand his or her money back if the vehicle fails inspection within seven days of the purchase and repairs necessary to make it pass are estimated to cost more than 10 percent of the purchase price. The used-vehicle warranty law states that dealers in Massachusetts are required to provide a written warranty against defects that impair the vehicle’s use or safety. The warranties range between one and three months, depending on how many miles are on the vehicle at the time it’s sold.

Experts also note that, despite popular belief, consumers do not have a three-day right to cancel a car purchase after they ink a deal with a seller.

“One of the biggest issues that always comes up is the three-day right to cancel,” Lynch said. “People seem to think that have those rights. They do not have that right to cancel a car deal.”

This right does apply to other areas, including door-to-door sales, second mortgages, health club memberships and timeshares, to name a few.

The Highland Valley caseworkers said the workshop gave them vital tips to share with some of their clients, many of whom are reluctant to admit they’ve fallen victim to any of these scams.

Each care adviser juggles roughly 80 caseloads at one time, so having useful information and resources at their fingertips is important, said care adviser Michelle Mei.

“It’s amazing how things change from year to year,” she said. “As care advisers, we’re in the moment meeting with 15 to 30 elders in a week. It’s always good to be reminded.”

Lynch said she realizes that people are understandably embarrassed to report such incidents and have a tendency to want to keep the issue to themselves. She strongly encourages victims to file reports with the attorney general’s office so that others can become aware of issues.

“Anyone can fall for a scam,” Lynch said. “But we can’t educate or try and help unless we know what’s going on.”

Related

Consumer protection tips

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

NORTHAMPTON — Consumer protection experts offered a smorgasbord of tips and information at a number of workshops this month in recognition of National Consumer Protection Month. Here are some resources: ∎ The Northwestern district attorney’s Consumer Protection Division has information about a plethora of topics, including filing a complaint, on its website at northwesternda.org/consumer-protection. The division can be reached in … 0

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