Fighting scams: Midvale woman sounds warning after phone pitch for 'medical card'

Published: Thursday, Sept. 13 2012 8:00 p.m. MDT

Norma Hood has had four scam phone calls recently, three in the past week alone, seeking personal and banking information. Scammers tend to target vulnerable groups, including the elderly and financially distressed. Consumer officials recommend hanging up if a conversation doesn't seem right.

Mark Wetzel, Deseret News

MIDVALE — Norma Hood is no spring chicken and she's no dummy, either.

The 73-year-old Midvale woman worked in insurance before she retired and now volunteers for her local police department. So when she got three calls in the past two weeks from people with accents from unidentified phone numbers and asking for her bank information, she knew what to do.

"I had requested a duplicate card for my husband and I thought, 'Medicare doesn't call you, you call them,'" she said. "Then, they asked for the name of my bank and I said, 'You don't need the name of my bank,' and they hung up."

That was the first of three calls Hood said she received requesting personal information for a "medical card." Two of the three calls came from what appeared to be a Chicago-area number that could not be called back. One of the calls listed the phone number as unavailable.

She said two of the callers have been men, while one was a female. Two of them hung up when she started to ask questions, but one argued with her.

"I wish I'd had a recorder and made a recording," she said. "I'd love to see these people brought down."

Impostor scams

Traci Gundersen, director of the Utah Division of Consumer Protection, said she hears of scams like this repeatedly. When the Federal Trade Commission released its 2011 state-by state "Consumer Sentinel" report, it said Utahns had logged 10,895 complaints. Five percent, or 556 of them, fell under the "Impostor Scams" category. It ranked fifth on the "Utah Division of Consumer Protection's Top Ten Consumer Complaints" list.

Gundersen said, as in Hood's experience, fraudsters often use prepaid numbers that they can "spoof" to make them appear as though they are coming from inside the United States. It's one of many tactics that are used.

"Sometimes they get information hacked from online databases that gets sold on the black market, but it's enough to get started," Gundersen said. "They pretend they're some kind of company … ask you all these questions to verify your identity."

She said they tend to target groups that are viewed as vulnerable, including the elderly and financially distressed. She said a "huge red flag" is when someone calls and begins asking for sensitive information such as birth date, Social Security number or bank account number.

"If you're getting a call to your house, it's usually related to something you've initiated," Gundersen said. "I think the smartest thing is just to hang up if it makes you feel uncomfortable or doesn't feel right."

Unsolicited calls

She said in some cases, when receiving an unsolicited call, she has asked if she could call back to verify that the call was real.

"If it's a legitimate company and you ask them questions … they will give you the information to get back to them," she said. "They won't be offended; in fact, they'll probably welcome it because they know they have the information."

Hood held firm with her callers, but she said she knows many people who have become more trusting as they've aged.

"One of the things you find once you reach a certain age is that people will believe anything," Hood said. "My husband is one of them. He thinks all people are honest and it's not that I don't want to believe that all people are honest, but it's common sense."

She said she thinks this scam might have something to do with it being an open enrollment period for many insurance companies. Alan Ormsby, state director of AARP Utah, said Hood may be right. He said fraud schemes will often adapt to capitalize on something seniors are dealing with. For example, he said when the Medicare Part D plan launched, there was a spike in Medicare-related scams.

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