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Newton launches anti-scam campaign

Posted by Leslie Anderson  October 9, 2012 04:59 PM

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Newton launched a new anti-scam program Tuesday afternoon to educate residents about common schemes that could rob them of thousands of dollars, with a presentation in the Senior Center by Mayor Setti Warren and representatives from Attorney General Martha Coakley’s office.

“We pride ourselves on being one of the safest communities in the country,” said Warren. “Part of being one of the safest communities in the country – it’s not just always about answering the call about traffic concerns or criminal actions, it’s also about consumer protection. Making certain that people are award what’s out there.”

The program, said Warren, will not be focused on seniors exclusively – he plans to hold similar presentations around the city.

While there has not been a spike in scams reported in the city, according to Eric Rosenbaum, Elder Affairs Officer with the Newton Police, there has been a steady stream of reports of attempted an successful scams, many of which, he said, target the elderly.

Often, when scams are brought to the attention of police, it’s too late for law enforcement to get stolen money back, said Rosenbaum and Meaghan Connoly, Senior Mediator for the Attorney General’s office. Scams are frequently conducted long-distance from other countries or across state lines, or from throw-away cell phones that are hard to track.

“Prevention is the best way of avoiding these scams and becoming the victims,” said Connoly. “It’s not just five or ten dollars – it’s thousands and thousands of dollars.”

One typical scam is the “grandparent scam,” she said.

In the grandparent scam, a scammer calls and claims to be a person’s grandson or granddaughter. The recipient of the call will often let slip the name of their grandchild, asking the caller if they are their grandchild.

The scammer, now armed with personal information, claims to be in trouble on vacation and asks the victim to send money to bail them out of jail. Often, said Connoly, the victim will point out that the caller doesn’t sound like their grandchild – at which point, the scammer will sometimes say they’ve been beaten by police. The scammer tells the victim not to tell their parents and to just quietly send the money.

And it doesn’t end there, said Connoly. Once the victim has sent money, the scammer will call again, asking for more.

“You may think, this will never happen to me,” she said. “These scam artists are very, very good. They prey on your heartstrings.”

The best way for people to protect themselves from the grandparent scam, she said, is to call their family and find out where their grandchild is before sending money.

Law enforcement agencies, said Rosenbaum, will never ask people to wire money to get someone out of jail. Bail, he said, is paid in person. Also, he said, a person making a phone call from jail will not be putting a police officer on the phone, or putting a lawyer on the phone, as scammers often pretend to do. A phone call asking for bail is short and sweet, he said, and requires a trip to the police station, not a Western Union transfer.

Another common scam, said Connoly, is the “cardmember services” scam – where scammers call victims claiming to be a representative from a cardmember services group and ask for credit card information.

“Some of you heard ‘Rachel’ calling you,” said Connoly. “She’s calling for your credit card information. You’re not to give any credit information over the phone.”

If there is a concern about credit cards, she said, call the bank or the credit card company directly.

With cold weather coming up, said Connoly, officials expect to hear more chimney cleaning scams, which are usually conducted door to door. A scammer will offer deals on chimney cleaning for $30.

“Something is always ‘wrong’ with your chimney,” said Connoly. “That $30 is now an emergency that needs to cost between $1,700 and $3,300 to fix, and they need it right away in cash.”

Recently, she said, one scammer completed work on a woman’s chimney, charged her $3,300, and did the work so poorly that the victim nearly died of carbon monoxide poisoning.

The best way to protect yourself, said Connoly, is to call around and ask about any contractor who might do work on your home. Call the attorney general’s office, she said, and neighbors. See if there are any complaints on file.

Solicitors going door to door in Newton, said Rosenbaum, must be registered with the city, and have a visible ID stating who they are and that they are registered. Solicitors who are not registered, he said, can be arrested. The city only allows soliciting during business hours, and not after sundown.

Anyone who is concerned that they may be targets of a scam, said officials, should call police. Even if the individual scam is not successful, police and the Attorney General’s Office keep track of problems and can look for patterns.

Any elders concerned that they might be targets of a scam can call the Newton Senior Center at 617-796-1660. Senior Center staff, said Director Jayne Colino, can’t act as an enforcer, but can help talk seniors through problems, help them navigate the bureaucracy to report issues, and work with them on filing complaints.

Seniors can also call the Newton Police Department at 617-796-2100 and ask for Officer Rosenbaum with Elder Affairs.

The Attorney General’s office has an Elder Hotline that is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. that can be reached at 888-243-5337. There is also a Public Inquiry and Assistance Center that can be reached at 617-727-8400.

The Attorney General also has a Newton-Brookline Consumer Office located in Newton City Hall that can be reached at 617-796-1292.

“We often say, if somebody takes that much negative energy, it would take a fraction of that energy and turn it into something good – like curing cancer or curing Alzheimers – the world would be a much better place,” said Colino of the amount of time scammers put into robbing people.

The solution, she said, is for everyone to be alert and informed and stay on their toes.

“We’re all gonna be walking higher on our toes as we leave here today,” she said.

Evan Allen can be reached at evan.allen@globe.com.

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