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September 2nd, 2009

Investigator Hoops is on the case



Sanford R. Altman

Question

: I have heard on the news that these difficult economic times have brought about many new frauds perpetrated on seniors. What should we look out for?

Answer

: Have you ever received a check in the mail from a contest or lottery that you could not recall entering? Perhaps in better times you would have been more skeptical. Now, when people tend to feel somewhat desperate, caution often takes a backseat. A gift is a gift and don’t ask questions.

This, however, may be one of the scams that Mark Hoops, Consumer Fraud Investigator from the New York State Attorney General’s Office presented to the Adult Protective Services Task Force, of which I have been a member for many years. We invited Investigator Hoops of The Attorney General’s Poughkeepsie office headed by Vincent Bradley, to speak to the Task Force to help us to better serve the seniors we represent. Now I can pass on some of what he told us to you.

The "counterfeit check scam" can take many forms. It may be unexpected "winnings" where you must send some money back for handling, etc., or an overpayment for an item you were selling. When you deposit the genuine looking check into your own account, your bank may tell you that the funds are available. But this is not because the check is good, but rather because you have a high enough balance in that account to cover it. So you may feel confident when you send your own check back to the scam artist, only to learn later that his or her check was worthless.

How to avoid this? Ignore any offer that requests a pre-payment for a prize or a gift. If you are selling any item, do not accept an overpayment requiring you to return the excess amount. Finally, if you feel you absolutely must take some action on that unexpected check that arrives in the mail, take a deep breath and wait until your bank tells you that the check has actually cleared, not merely that the balance is "available". If it is a legitimate offer, they will wait a few more days.

Here are a few more highlights from Investigator Hoops’ talk and the materials he distributed:

1. Mailings that offer to obtain for you the "all important" certified copy of your deed for a fee

- In fact, you can get this yourself directly from the County for significantly less. As a lawyer, I can tell you that you almost never need a certified copy of your deed - not for a loan and not even if you are selling your home.

2. Door to door magazine subscription sales

- Where you get to pay but never read. The salesperson is required to have a peddler’s license. Even children. Ask for it.

3. Charity telemarketers

- Hard to resist. However, they are required to register with the State, so ask for their registration number and a copy of their annual report. In fact, the Attorney General’s Office has a publication which shows you the percentage of donations that actually go to the charitable purpose, as opposed to "administrative expenses", i.e., salaries, etc. While charities are exempt from the "do not call" list (which all of us should be on), if you ask the caller to take you off the list, they must do so. This is a practice I follow myself and I always advise the caller that I do not make contributions on the phone but will be happy to look at their literature if they send it to me in the mail. Most of the time, nothing is sent.

4. Rogue contractors

- Any time a "contractor" appears at your door uninvited and offers to do some work for you such as pave your driveway, be very suspicious. You can check specific contractors on the Attorney General’s website (click on ‘Know Your Contractor’), or call the toll free number and ask for Mark Hoops. The website and toll free number are listed below. Ask the contractor for references. You have the right to a written contract stating the work to be performed, the price and time of payments and the date of completion. Ask for an insurance certificate for anyone working on your home. Never pay in full before the job is completed.

5. Identity theft

- Someone from your bank calls and asks if you would like your credit card interest rate lowered. Of course you would. Then they start asking you for your personal information. That is when you should hang up. Your bank already knows your personal information. More to the point, if your bank wanted to lower your rate, they would not need to call you at all, they would just lower your rate. The rule of thumb is that you should never give your social security number and other personal information over the telephone unless you are certain of the person or the business on the other end. If you are purchasing an item on the internet, look for the "padlock" security sign.

Finally, if you suspect identity theft, then Investigator Hoops advises to follow the relatively simple procedure of freezing your credit, a process that only you personally can reverse when needed. You can do this by going to the websites at the three major credit reporting services - Experian, TransUnion and Equifax.

The Attorney General’s Office is a great resource. Especially helpful is the "Smart Seniors" brochure. Here is the contact information: website: www.oag.state.ny.us; Toll Free: 1-800-771-7755; our regional office: 845-485-3900.

Sanford R. Altman is an Elder Law Attorney with a firm in Orange, Dutchess and Sullivan Counties, a member attorney of the AARP Legal Services Network, a member of National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys (NAELA), and frequently writes on Elder Law issues for local publications. He may be reached at the following number (845) 778-2121. Please note that while this column is intended to give general legal information, everyone’s circumstances differ. This column is not a substitute for obtaining legal advice directly from an attorney which will address your particular circumstances.

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