2016-09-21 / Front Page

Helping Seniors Stay Ahead of Scam Artists

By Jesse Hilson

Assistant Attorney General Michael Danaher Assistant Attorney General Michael Danaher Seniors are the group most likely to be targeted by scammers, according to Michael Danaher, assistant attorney general for New York state in the Binghamton regional office. Danaher spoke to a crowd that gathered at the Andes Roundtable on Sept. 14, offering insight and tips as to how to approach the world of cutting-edge fraud. Many of the points were familiar to the audience, but presented from the perspective of an expert who was willing to answer many questions the crowd put forward.

Danaher listed some reasons the elderly are the most common victims: Seniors are retired and have money, and since their money is liquid, it is easily accessible; seniors are often not as able to do for themselves, more often confused, and were brought up in a time when “A handshake meant a deal,” Danaher said. Seniors are also the numberone group least likely to report that they’ve been scammed, out of embarrassment and fear of losing autonomy in the eyes of their family. In the event of being tricked out of a sum of money, Danaher summarized the victim’s fear: “There goes the checkbook, the car keys, and it’s a one way trip to the nursing home.”

“Scam artists are not known for putting their money into a 401K,” Danaher said, explaining that even if his office were able to find the scam artists, it would be very unlikely that they could recover the lost money. Prevention is better than prosecution after the fact, and Danaher’s talk focused on forestalling the tactics of the criminals. The main rule of thumb when evaluating the threat of fraud is “If it sounds too good to be true, it is.”

Danaher reiterated how crucial it is to protect specific pieces of personal information: Social Security numbers, bank account numbers, age, mother’s maiden name, password, the answers to security questions. “Never give out personal information to someone you don’t know,” he said. “If someone contacts you from your bank, and tells you that your account has been compromised and will be shut down unless you click here, to verify your account number and pin - call your bank. No financial institution will send you an email asking for account numbers or passwords.”

Danaher made an interesting point that made the crowd, who were mainly seniors, chuckle with realization. “With security questions, it isn’t a true or false question,” he said. No computer program, service, or account will force you to use your mother’s correct maiden name. “Make one up and remember it. It is just a piece of information that only you are supposed to know about.” It is unsafe to base security questions on actual information that some potential scam artist could deduce.

“Use unique, robust PINs (Personal Identification Numbers) and passwords,” Danaher said. With PINs, “Don’t use the last four digits of your social security number, or your telephone,” adding that seniors should pick numbers that have no relation to their personal information. Danaher gave an alarming statistic: 60% of people use sequential numbers in pins, such as 1234, 7890, or 4321.

Passwords should be changed on a regular basis, and a single password should not be used for multiple important accounts. “If they get one and you haven’t diversified your passwords, they just got the golden key,” Danaher said. Other tips in composing passwords are to use non-uniform words, not to use common words that are in a dictionary, and to use a combination of numbers, capital letters, lower case letters, and symbols. Finally, since such non-standard passwords are hard to remember, they should be kept in a hard copy, not on any electronic device such as a smartphone.

In telephone scams, caller ID is useless. “A lot of these scams don’t originate in New York or even the U.S.,” Danaher said. “Scammers can spoof the telephone number.” Callers pretending to be the IRS or Microsoft for example, can be rejected outright. “The IRS does not call and demand money,” he said. “If the IRS were coming to look for you they would do it by mail. And Microsoft does not call you to alert you to a security issue; that is someone trying to get remote access to your computer, to embed spyware or malware.”

Other callers, who may not necessarily be trying to perpetrate a scam but can still be nuisances that must be navigated, are those soliciting funds for charities. Danaher directed the crowd to consult the New York State Attorney General’s website to research charities, at “Every charity in NYS is required to register and file annual reports with us,” Danaher said. He encouraged people to look up records on the website, and to see what percentage of donations goes toward the charitable program, and how much goes toward fundraising costs. The average is 1/3 to charitable purposes, 2/3 to fundraising costs. Danaher suggested that people make a charitable giving plan at the beginning of year, before the phone calls come, setting aside money for favorite charities. He also suggested in the event that people feel unsure about a charity and want to stall, saying, “I do not contribute over the telephone, send me your literature. I’ve already made my giving plan.”

Danaher serves under Attorney General Eric Schneiderman. He is in his 19th year as assistant attorney general and has been practicing law for 32 years. His primary responsibility is in prosecuting affirmative cases, including scams and frauds.

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