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Targeting seniors: Quick-thinking Columbus woman avoids trap


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The check Kimmell received in the mail.
PHOTO BY JOE HARPRING
The check Kimmell received in the mail. PHOTO BY JOE HARPRING

Reba Kimmell, Columbus, holds a phony check she received in the mail and a letter promising much, much more. Kimmell correctly figured the windfall was too good to be true.
PHOTO BY JOE HARPRING
Reba Kimmell, Columbus, holds a phony check she received in the mail and a letter promising much, much more. Kimmell correctly figured the windfall was too good to be true. PHOTO BY JOE HARPRING


She’d won $500,000, or so the letter claiming to be from Publisher’s Clearing House indicated.

But to collect her fortune, the “Final Attempt” letter mailed to Reba Kimmell last month explained that the Columbus woman had to pay taxes and an international processing fee. The letter tempted her with a cashier’s check for $9,873.68.

Kimmell was skeptical. So was her son, visiting from Illinois, and her local financial adviser.

“It was obviously a fraud,” said investment adviser Don Prince of Hilliard Lyons financial services in Columbus.

Check-cashing scams are a way to dupe consumers into divulging financial information, and they remain all too common in central Indiana, said Bill Thomas, president and CEO of the Better Business Bureau in Indianapolis.

Consumer scams such as these bilk Americans out of $1.5 billion a year, according to the Federal Trade Commission.

The American Association of Retired Persons, or AARP, believes people older than 50 — which Kimmell is — are particularly vulnerable to financial fraud because they generally expect honesty from businesspeople and are sometimes reluctant to blow the whistle.

Scams can take many shapes, and technology has helped perpetrators of fraud spread their efforts from mailboxes to consumers’ computers as people shop online and conduct more business electronically.

Denise Rexing, financial intelligence unit director at Old National Bank, said email scams are a particular problem around the Christmas season.

“Holiday time is online shopping time, and now is a key period for people to be very wary of credit card and debit card fraud,” the bank security expert said.

Some email tricks appear to be messages from UPS or

FedEx with tracking and billing information about goods the consumer supposedly ordered.

Scammers often set out to get consumers to divulge private bank account information or make a wire money transfer.

The cashier’s check for $9,873.68 that arrived with Kimmell’s letter was drawn on a Texas bank and described as a “sponsorship check” to help pay taxes and other expenses supposedly associated with claiming her prize.

Erin Reece, a spokesperson for the Indiana Attorney General consumer protection office in Indianapolis, said the sweepstakes scam has been circulating for years. Consumers are generally asked at some point to send money to settle all fees and taxes. If someone tries to cash the “sponsorship check,” Reece said it bounces.

“If it was a real prize, you wouldn’t have to send in money to get money,” said Prince, her financial adviser.

Another sign that something was amiss: The letter showed a return address in British Columbia, Canada, but carried U.S. postage and was canceled in Philadelphia.

The real Publishers Clearing House does its best to warn consumers to guard against imposters.

On its website, Publishers Clearing House advises: “All prizes of $500 or greater are awarded by either certified or express letter or in person by our famous Prize Patrol at our option. More importantly, there are no strings attached to winning a Publishers Clearing House prize. There is no processing fee, tax or special handling charge required to win. Our prizes are delivered free of charge to the winners.”

Abby Kuzma, director of consumer protection for the attorney general’s office, said another prevalent scam involves bogus charities pretending to raise money for victims of Hurricane Sandy. Instead, they pocket the

donations.

“Whenever there is a crisis like Hurricane Sandy, you have scammers coming out of the woodwork,” Kuzma said. “Sometimes their websites are up faster than the legitimate ones, and it’s hard to spot the difference.”

Consumers are advised to never share personal data or bank-account details with suspicious callers or respond to emails asking for credit-card information or Social Security numbers.

“If it’s not someone you are familiar with, and you aren’t sure they’re legitimate, hang up and contact the real organization directly,” Kuzma said.

A separate scam making the rounds nationally is called “the grandparents’ scam,” Kuzma said.

In that scam, someone impersonating a grandchild calls an elderly person and asks for money.

“They’ll say something like, ‘Grandma, I just wrecked my car and I need $4,000 immediately,” Kuzma said. “’Don’t tell mom, she will be mad. Can you wire me the money?’”

Yet another scam preys on a surviving spouse after the husband or wife has died, pointing to outstanding debt that needs to be paid.

The attorney general’s office suggests that people ask for written confirmation before parting with a single dime.

Kimmel contacted The Republic in hopes that others would also be hesitant if someone made an offer to them that appeared too good to be true.

Setting up a credit freeze

How it works: The freeze keeps new creditors from accessing your credit report without permission. If you activate a credit freeze, an identity thief can’t get new credit in your name, even if the thief has your Social Security number.

It’s free: Any Indiana resident can request that a freeze be implemented at no charge.

What to do: Go online or send a certified letter to each of the three credit agencies:

Equifax Security Freeze: P.O. Box 105788; Atlanta, GA 30348

Experian Security Freeze: P.O. Box 9554; Allen, TX 75013

Trans Union Security Freeze: P.O. Box 6790; Fullerton, CA 92834-6790

What you must provide:

Your full name (including middle initial as well as Jr., Sr., II, III, etc.,) address, Social Security number and date of birth.

If you have moved in the past five years, you will need the addresses where you have lived during the prior five years.

Proof of current address such as a utility or phone bill (alternative options include a bank, insurance, or credit card statement listing your full name and address).

A photocopy of a government issued identification card (state driver’s license or ID card) will do the trick.

Source: State attorney general’s office

Tools to ward off fraud

Five signs of identity theft

1. Debts show up on your accounts that you can’t explain.

2. Fraudulent or inaccurate information pops up on your credit reports.

3. Monthly bills don’t arrive as they should. A missing bill could mean an identity thief has taken over your account and changed your billing address to cover his or her tracks.

4. You are denied credit or are offered less favorable credit terms than you’re accustomed to, such as a higher interest rate kicking in for no apparent reason.

5. Getting calls or letters from debt collectors or businesses about merchandise or services you never bought.

Fight back: Monitor personal information

Save any transaction or confirmation numbers from Internet purchases and make a note of the time and contents of the order.

Review the privacy policy of any online company you deal with and request they not share your financial information.

Other tips

Review financial statements: Look closely for bogus charges or inaccurate personal information on your bills and on your consumer credit reports.

Check credit reports: Credit reports contain information about you, including what accounts you have and how you pay bills. The law requires each of the major nationwide consumer reporting agencies to provide a free copy of your credit report, at your request, once every 12 months.

Warning signs: Review the credit reports, searching for entries about inquiries from supposed creditors that you never contacted or purchases you never made.

Keep it up: Continue to check credit reports periodically. This is especially important if you were the victim of an identity theft recently.

How to get free credit reports

Get a free annual report from one or all three of the national consumer reporting firms by visiting the website, annualcreditreport.com; calling 877-322-8228; or complete an Annual Credit Report Request Form (you can download the form at ftc.gov/credit) and mail it to Annual Credit Report Request Service, P.O. Box 105281, Atlanta, GA 30348-5281.

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