Education, constant vigilance to fight scam artists

May 26, 2013 

Scams come in countless forms in this era, moreso than in generations past because of the proliferation of computers, tablets and smart phones. Emails frequently phish for people innocent enough to fall for a bogus pitch. Phone calls lure others into revealing personal information. Identity theft has mushroomed into a global threat.

One U.S. attorney at an Orlando fraud conference this month warned that scams are becoming more and more sophisticated -- and thus tougher for unsuspecting people to reject as bogus. The past two years have witnessed sharp increases in the number of elderly fraud cases in Florida.

Manatee County statistics mirror the statewide surge in cases with 1,985 scams reported in 2011 and another 2,208 in 2012 -- this just in the unincorporated areas of the county, not in the municipalities.

While frequent warnings about scams are issued by federal, state and local agencies, with reports appearing in the media and law enforcement websites, people still fall prey to fraudsters.

Many potential victims remain unaware of the warnings. Relatives, friends and neighbors could help by spreading the word, particularly to seniors, a favorite target of con artists.

Since Florida is home to the nation's highest percentage of seniors 60 and older with 4.5 million residents, the Sunshine State is prime territory for schemers.

And those fraudsters are getting away with most of their crimes as elderly advocates and law enforcement estimate that for every one reported case, somewhere between 15 and 25 incidents are kept secret -- often out of embarrassment.

Just this week, Congressman Vern Buchanan, R-Longboat Key, introduced bipartisan legislation with two Democrats to crack down on financial schemes and other scams that target older Americans. The Seniors Fraud Prevention Act takes aim at sweepstakes and charity scams, investment plan fraud, Internet swindles and other financial schemes. It also establishes a new federal office to alert consumers of new scams and take complaints for forwarding to law enforcement. This bill will help combat all these crimes. The financial losses to all manner of fraud are staggering -- estimated at almost $3 billion in 2010 alone, according to one study.

In one of the latest scams here, the Manatee County Sheriff's Office reports phone calls and emails to elderly residents seek donations to help the victims of the Boston Marathon bombing. People should now expect solicitations about the Oklahoma tornado disaster. Only donate to established, trusted organizations such as the Red Cross. Other popular cons to avoid:

• Sending money to get a so-called relative or friend out of trouble in a foreign country.

• Sending money to ensure delivery of a big cash prize, with the usual pitch being taxes must be paid up front.

• Paying for home improvement projects up front. All too often, the alleged contractor simply disappears.

• Phony company representatives asking for bank account information, Social Security numbers and other personal information that can lead to identity theft.

• Ponzi investment schemes are another widespread scam.

One of the best pieces of advice: If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is -- even coming from someone you trust. Do your homework and check everything out.

The Bradenton and Sarasota police departments utilize a website -- www.nixle.com -- to post scam warnings, which are sent out to local subscribers via email and mobile alerts. We encourage residents to sign up.

Education is vital to fending off fraud artists. Again, we encourage relatives, friends and neighbors to counsel seniors about the many ways con artists try to separate people from their money.

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