Sunday, March 1, 2015

AARP group educating citizens on how to avoid scams - By Elizabeth Richards

Too many people fall victim to scam artists and identity theft every day. AARP Maine is on a mission to help educate Maine people about fraud activity and what they can do to protect themselves.
“Scam and fraud is something that is on the rise, and I think it always will be,” said Jane Margesson, communications director for AARP Maine. “You can’t really stop it. The advent of the Internet has just resulted in a boon of online fraud and scams,” she added. Often, older adults are targeted, but no one is immune to the risks. And every time one scam dies out, several more come along to take its place.

Margesson said that AARP goals are to make sure people are aware of as many scams as possible, and also to arm people with the resources and tools they need to avoid becoming victims. The AARP Fraud Watch Network is an initiative that began about a year ago, available to people of all ages, not just AARP members. Through this network, people can sign up for alerts about current scams, get resources on how to protect themselves, and access a national fraud hotline. “We’re doing a lot of outreach to raise awareness,” said Margesson. 

Margesson is building a team of volunteers to help her spread the word statewide. “We would love to have fraud fighters across the state if we could,” she said. Volunteers can give presentations, go to agencies in the community to leave outreach materials, and coordinate speaking engagements. 

Con artists are creative and very good at what they do. New scams pop up, particularly at specific times of the year like holidays or around natural disasters. Currently, two IRS scams are making the rounds – one where con artists are filing with information they have stolen, and another where people are receiving phone calls stating they owe back taxes, and must pay immediately. Other scams happen throughout the year, such as sweetheart scams, where people are targeted on dating websites, and the grandparent scam, where an older person is convinced that their grandchild needs money wired to help them get out of trouble. Presentations focus on identifying common scams, as well as giving tips and outreach materials to participants.

Margesson said, “The reason they’re so successful is that they get people with what they call ‘under the ether’. They get them into this heightened emotional state where they’re no longer thinking clearly.” Convicted con artists have admitted this tactic, and anyone can fall prey. “If you think this won’t happen to you, think again because this is how good these people are. This is what they do for a living.”

Margesson, who is a Windham resident, is currently working with the Windham Police Department to set up a presentation in the community. They have been partnering with many local and state agencies to do outreach. Public libraries will have bookmarks and other materials about the Fraud Watch Network available. The hope, said Margesson, is that with all of the outreach, people will remember hearing about a scam and not fall victim.

“The more we can raise awareness and work together to do it, the better,” said Margesson. She is excited that many agencies are on board with this type of work. “There’s a lot of potential to help a lot of people,” she said.

Everything offered by the AARP Fraud Network is free of charge, from presentations to materials. And the tips can make a difference. Following the steps outlined in the materials goes a long way in protecting yourself against fraud. Margesson said it is also important to report a scam if you see one. “The more we can share the awareness with one another the more we can stay safe,” she said. 

“It can happen to anyone,” she said. “That said, you don’t have to live in fear. You can really take control of the situation by knowing the steps to take, by recognizing the signs.” 

“I want people to feel empowered,” she said. She offered some quick tips to help protect your identity. These include never paying anything upfront to receive “winnings” or depositing a check that that requires you to return money after doing so, being selective about who you give your social security number to, not carrying social security cards in your wallet, using credit rather than debit cards, and checking your credit reports each year using the free service on

“There are lots of tips like this. If you are being a smart consumer and your own best fraud fighter, you can stay safe from fraud, and you can beat them at their own game,” said Margesson.

The website offers tips for protecting yourself, a place to sign up for watchdog alerts to keep informed of new scams, and a lot of information about popular fraud activity. Their national hotline (1-877-908-3360) is available for support and referrals when someone has been a victim of fraud.

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