Harris County Attorney Vince Ryan has a reminder for all residents to watch out for common recurring scams, especially those that target senior adults.
The story of the grandmother receiving a phone call from someone claiming to be her grandchild who says she’s in danger and needs money isn’t a new story. But it was very real for Mary (not her real name), who felt compelled to send money via gift cards as instructed—not once, but twice.
The person on the other end of the phone was not Mary’s grandchild nor an acquaintance of her grandchild. But when it was all said and done, Mary had sent more than $10,000 in prepaid gift cards to a scammer.
Mary’s story is just one of many brought to the County Attorney’s Office, which is charged with protecting the disabled and elderly. The Disability and Elder Law Practice Group in the Office represents the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services and Harris County’s Adult Protective Services in cases involving the elderly or adults with disabilities who may be neglected, abused or exploited.
After Mary talked with the County Attorney’s Office, she was guided to the professionals at the Harris County Senior Justice Assessment Center (SJAC), a central location where multiple agencies work together to deal with these issues. Agencies involved with SJAC include the Harris County Attorney, Harris County Guardianship Program, Texas Department of Family and Protective Services (Adult Protective Services), Texas Attorney General’s Office, Better Business Bureau Education Foundation, Harris County District Attorney’s Office, Harris County Sheriff’s Office, Harris Health System, Houston Police Department, and UTHealth.
The agencies meet regularly to review referrals from participating agencies and law enforcement. The SJAC teams discuss each client’s needs and how they can be met. Other professionals, including a forensic nurse, a psychiatrist, forensic case managers, geriatric health specialists, mental health professionals and lawyers participate in the discussions and planning.
“I find those who prey on seniors, some of our most vulnerable residents, particularly despicable,” said County Attorney Ryan. “We must help our seniors be vigilant and avoid these scams.”
These are the seven scams that regularly target Harris County seniors according to Cecilia Longoria, Managing Attorney for the Disability and Elder Law Practice Group.
Sweepstakes Scam: You’ve won a contest! Or the lottery! Or the Publishers Clearinghouse Sweepstakes! All you have to do to claim your prize is to pay some fees or taxes in advance so they can release your prize. This is not a new scam, but it is a perennial problem.
Medicare/Healthcare Scam: Someone may call and pose as a Medicare representative to get your personal information, such as your Medicare number. They will bill Medicare for bogus products or services that you never qualified for or in most cases never received. Be sure to keep an eye on your Medicare Summary Notices to catch such errors, abuse and FRAUD. Report any suspicious behavior to the Texas Senior Medicare Patrol at 888-341-6187.
Emergency Scam: This one is sometimes called the “grandparent scam” because it often preys on older consumers. You get a call or email from your grandchild or other relative who was injured, robbed or arrested while traveling overseas and needs money ASAP. Do not send money!!
“Risk-free” Trial Offers: You’ve seen them on the television and internet: ads or links claiming these “miracle” products will help you lose weight easily, combat wrinkles or whiten teeth. You may be enticed to try these products through a “risk-free” trial offer; however, many of us fail to look at the fine print where you discover you have only 14 days to receive, evaluate and return the product before being charged $100 or more for monthly shipments. A tip on free trials: If you have to enter a credit card number for something “free,” that’s a red flag.
Utility Company Scams: Utility scams happen when door-to-door sales representatives claiming to represent legitimate utility companies come to your home and convince you they can save you money on your electricity or gas bill. Unfortunately, they will either try to gain access to your account information to switch your service without permission or offer low-low rates for the first couple of months then hit you with a steep price hike. Your safest course of action to avoid getting caught up in one of these scams is to not open your door or respond to emails/phone calls from strangers.
Tech Support Scam: You get a call or a pop-up on your computer claiming to be from Microsoft (or Norton or Apple) about a problem on your computer. They say if you give “tech support” access to your hard drive, they can fix it. Instead, they install malware on your computer and start stealing your personal information.
Arrest Scam: You receive an ominous phone call from someone claiming to be a police officer or government agent (often the IRS). They are coming to arrest you for overdue taxes or for skipping out on jury duty. They will say you can avoid arrest by sending them money via a prepaid debit card or wire transfer. Another variation on this is that you’ll be arrested for an overdue payday loan. Whatever the “violation,” it’s scary to be threatened with arrest and many people pay out of fear.
County Attorney Ryan offers these guidelines that will help you avoid being the victim of a scam:
Don’t be pressured into making fast decisions.
Take time to research the organization. Check them out on bbb.org, search online, etc.
Never provide your personal information (address, date of birth, banking information, ID numbers) to people you do not know.
If you are unsure about a call or email that claims to be from your bank, utility company, etc., call the business from the number on your bill or the back of your credit card. Never send money by wire transfer or prepaid debit card to someone you don’t know or haven’t met in person.
Never send money for an emergency situation unless you’ve been able to verify the emergency.
If you feel you are a victim of fraud or a scam, contact your local police department or call the Office of the Harris County Attorney at 713-755-5101. Call the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services at 1-800-252-5400 if you or someone you know may have been the victim of abuse, neglect, self-neglect, or exploitation of the elderly or adults with disabilities living at home.