I think the smartest thing is just to hang up if it makes you feel uncomfortable or doesn't feel right. —Traci Gundersen, Utah Division of Consumer Protection
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."
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."
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.
"When Part D was new, seniors were reporting scams left and right," Ormsby said. "Any time there is confusion or something new out there, scammers will take advantage. It's very sad and very frequent."
He said the Medicare Plan D scams even extended to people who went door-to-door asking for drivers' licenses and bank account numbers. It got to the point that Medicare had to announce that none of its representatives were soliciting door-to-door, Ormsby said.
Just hang up
Ormsby urged seniors to remove themselves from suspicious situations.
"It's OK to hang up the phone," he said. "They don't have to be friendly. It's OK to say, 'No thank you, goodbye.' Sometimes older adults are hesitant to just shut the door on a person because they are polite and kind and good people. They need to know it's OK."
But he also believes the reason seniors are targeted by scams goes beyond their kind and trusting natures.
"I think they're targeted because they have money," he said, adding that many scam artists are searching for that "nest egg."
It doesn't help that the scams are aimed at the things that would draw an emotional response from most — family, finances and health care. Ormsby said those facing a scam that draws on such sensitive topics should take a step back and talk to those they trust, but should remember if something sounds too good to be true, it usually is.
AARP has a number of methods of tackling the problem. The group has numerous articles online, it works with the Division of Securities to host fraud forums and prints bulletins in its AARP Money newsletter. Ormsby met with credit union executives on Thursday to talk about how the credit unions can help fight fraud.
"Everyone who works with older adults knows someone whose been defrauded," Ormsby said. "Everyone has someone in their lives that they know this happened to. This is one thing that is consistently coming up. People want to know, 'How can I stay healthy? How can I make sure my brain stays healthy? … And how do I avoid fraud?'"
Hood said she considers herself to be an informed person. She said she hopes her fellow seniors will be more aware and careful, even if it goes against their trusting nature.
"I think that's just part of the aging process, but I've always just been as suspicious as heck," she said.
Top Utah consumer complaints
1. Debt collection — 1,312
2. Prizes, sweepstakes and lotteries — 716
3. Shop-at-home, catalog sales — 6204 comments on this story
4. Banks and lenders — 619
5. Imposter scams — 556
Source: 2011 Federal Trade Commission report