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County fights back against senior scams

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Nearly 100 seniors from all over Nassau County gathered at the Franklin Square Senior Center on March 19 for the first in a series of public forums seeking to educate senior citizens about the rising wave of scams targeting them. County Executive Laura Curran, who kicked off the new initiative with Police Commissioner Patrick Ryder, warned seniors that they were the primary targets of phone scams and fake emails.

“You can get anxious from all these calls, and they prey on these anxieties,” Curran said. “But don’t be afraid. Call the police.”

The Nassau County Police Department reported 262 cases of phone scams last year, with nearly half of those targeting senior citizens. Officer Dan Johannessen, who led a presentation on how to spot scams, said that there has been a 19 percent increase in these scams since 2015. Johannessen explained that there were typically four types of phone scams, including calls about a family member being kidnapped or arrested, calls from fake government agencies and utility companies, and calls about fake prizes being won.

The NCPD recently reported a case about a 79-year-old man in Plainview who had been scammed out of more than $147,000 through a fake Publishing Clearing House Sweepstakes call. It had been explained to the victim that he needed to make multiple deposits to pay for fees and taxes related to the sweepstakes. Johannessen added that while stories such as these might seem rare, they can happen to anyone.

“There’s been victims that give thousands to these guys,” Johannessen said. “You may think it’s impossible to fall for this, but these [scammers] are professionals at what they do. And there are some people who lose money and are embarrassed and never report it.”

Mary Frignani, the executive director at Oyster Bay’s Life Enrichment Center, said seniors complain often about scams. And a couple of the center’s members were victims last year. One was a grandparent trying to rescue their grandson who they were told had been kidnapped. After a few calls, the grandfather was able to reach his grandson at home.

“He had sent money using his credit card to the scammer,” Frignani said, “but fortunately found out in time and the credit card company gave the money back. People get so scared.”

And sometimes it all seems so real, Frignani said.

Carol Waldman, executive director of the Glen Cove Senior Center, said that the issue of seniors falling victim to phone scammers is a “huge” problem that is only growing. Scammers are becoming more and more capable of exploiting technology and emotions to rob their victims of money.

“They are getting targeted,” Waldman said, “because in many cases they [deal with] loneliness and just the idea that someone is calling them up and needing something from them gives them value again.”

Although caller ID is a useful tool to spot scammers, Johannessen warned that new technology has allowed these fraudsters to mask their caller ID and appear as though the calls are coming from legitimate organizations. Reports have come in about scam calls with the ID’s of the IRS, PSEG Long Island and even local police departments.

Frignani said that seniors told her they had received a call from Social Security requesting all kinds of personal information. The seniors were told that if they didn’t provide it, they would lose their Social Security because they owed money.

Ryder said that legitimate organizations would never ask residents for money over the phone and warned seniors to not only hang up their phones, but to jot down the numbers of the callers and report them to the police.

But sometimes the caller is not identifiable. Frignani said she’s been told the phone number had the same exchange as that of where the senior lived, causing them to believe it may be a neighbor who might need help.

NCPD officers say that a new type of scam is going around asking seniors to purchase gift cards as a form of money. They urged seniors, family members and retail employees to be on the lookout for those purchasing multiple gift cards.

County officials will be holding additional forums throughout Nassau soon. And the Life Enrichment Center will continue to offer opportunities to share the latest scams and information on how to avoid becoming a victim. Assemblyman Chuck Lavine and a representative from the Attorney General’s Office will lead a fraud workshop on April 16 at 11:15 a.m. For additional information, Frignani said to call the center at (516) 922-1770.