Seniors learn how to avoid scammers' traps

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Stephanie Bias, chief Medicare fraud prevention educator with the N.C. Department of Insurance, shows attendees at Friday's "Scam Jam" event at the Pasquotank Cooperative Extension Center a flier outlining the 10 things seniors should know about their new Medicare card.

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By William F. West
Staff Writer

Saturday, September 8, 2018

Local senior citizens learned Friday just how far crooks and hackers are willing to go to make them victims of financial fraud — and what they can do to stop it from happening. 

Officials from the Pasquotank Sheriff’s Office, the N.C. Department of Justice and the N.C. Department of Insurance issued both warnings and advice to about 25 residents during the annual "Scam Jam" event at the Pasquotank Cooperative Extension Center. The Hertford-based Albemarle Commission's Area Agency on Aging sponsored the event.

Sgt. Tommy Wooten of the Pasquotank Sheriff’s Office detailed how scammers bilked one senior citizen of more than $80,000 a couple of years ago.

According to Wooten, the scammers phoned the man and told him he had won approximately $2 million, but would need to make up-front payments to cover taxes before he received the prize. Wooten said the man unwittingly spent more and more money to get a prize that never came.

"This stuff is happening right here and it's very real," Wooten said. "And I don't know about y'all, but $80,000 is a lot of money."

Wooten said scammers don’t limit their tricks to the elderly. He said younger people are also being targeted by what are known as "sextortion scam emails."

The way the scam works, the person receives a pornographic image or something else potentially compromising and then a message that someone knows he viewed it online. The person also receives a message listing the internet password they’ve been using.

The person is told they can avoid having their viewing of the compromising material made public by purchasing digital currency like bitcoins and make payments to the blackmailer.

Wooten said anyone receiving that kind of communication needs to shut down their computer immediately and contact a computer service expert.

Also when using cell phones and computers, it’s critical to keep your passwords hidden and to change them often, Wooten said. 

"If you have passwords and you keep them written down in a safe location, that's awesome. Change your passwords every month. Change them as much as you can," he said.

Hugh Harris, an outreach and policy counsel with the N.C. Department of Justice's Public Protection Section, also spoke at Friday’s Scam Jam. He discussed several lottery-related scams, including one that specifically targets Hispanic residents.

According to Harris, a scammer will approach someone who is Hispanic, typically in a parking lot, and lie that he has won the lottery but can’t collect it because he’s in the U.S. illegally. The scammer typically asks the victim to give him some money to help collect the lottery award, and in exchange the scammer will promise to give the victim a part of the award when he finally gets it.

Harris said anyone can be a scam victim.

"Who are the victims?” he asked. “They're people just like us. They're not stupid or anything like that. They could be in situations. We can't judge someone.”

His best advice to avoid ending up a scam victim, he said, is to remember the old saw “If it's too good to be true, it is."

"It's that simple. You just have to back away," Harris said.

Also speaking at Friday’s Scam Jam was Stephanie Bias, chief Medicare fraud prevention educator with the N.C. Department of Insurance. Bias talked about the importance of protecting one’s Medicare information, noting the federal government insurance program for the elderly lost $68 billion in fraud last year.

Bias said Medicare plans to issue new cards which will contain distinctive numbers and won't have the cardholder’s signatures, which are easy to copy. Bias advised Medicare cardholders not to immediately destroy their old cards, but to instead keep them for the time being.

She urged Medicare cardholders not to fall for the scammers’ trick where they get a phone call asking them to verify their Medicare card by reading its number over the phone. She stressed that Medicare officials don’t call recipients asking for card numbers.

She also advised Medicare cardholders to place their cards face down in card holders, so that someone standing behind them at the pharmacy can't take a photo of their card with a cellphone.

Bias also urged seniors with a standalone prescription drug plan to get a “benefits checkup” every year. That’s because formularies and information on deductibles, drug lists, tiers and premiums change. She noted that Oct. 15 to Dec. 7 is when people with Medicare coverage can change their health plans and prescription drug coverage for the next year.

Bias said anyone with questions about Medicare should call the N.C. Department of Insurance at 1-855-408-1212.