Protecting ourselves from fraud

By Regina Salmi

Area Agency on Aging of Western Michigan

A few weeks ago, I came home to an envelope on my kitchen counter and a note from my mother-in-law, stating “I received this bill. I will pay it tomorrow.” It was a bill for $179. I called her immediately and told her not to pay the bill. Her response, “Well, I already put a check in the mail.”

My mother-in-law didn’t owe anyone $179. She knew there was something wrong with the bill, which is why she brought it to my house and left a note. In the two hours between the time she left my house and I returned her call though, she convinced herself it was something she must owe, wrote out a check and put it in the mail. It took several phone calls, a check cancellation fee, and three days to resolve the issue. At the end of it, my mother-in-law exclaimed, “Why, I’ve never gotten into so much trouble for paying a bill!”

Of the many scams out there right now, one of them involves ‘fake bills.’ Scammers produce mailings pretending to be companies like Consumers Energy, AT&T, and even the IRS — companies with whom most people would likely have an account. These mailings claim there is a past due amount and the bill needs to be paid immediately to avoid legal action. These scams prey on values like stewardship, responsibility, trustworthiness and honesty. They also prey on fear. People like my mother-in-law would be troubled to think they owe a utility company money and inclined to pay it immediately. When people pay these fake bills though, they lose more than money. In the process of paying, whether by check or credit card, they are releasing even more personal information to these criminals. In addition, because they fell for the scam, their information is sold to other unscrupulous people for future scams. An innocent person can become stuck in a terrible web of fraud.

It’s important that we begin to develop behaviors to protect ourselves from those who want to take advantage of us. There are actions we can take to avoid becoming their prey when we encounter these scams.

• Don’t Panic. Even if something says, “Pay Immediately!” you can allow yourself three to five days to make sure the bill is legitimate. It is much more difficult to unpay a bill than it is to pay it.

• Be skeptical. Did the bill come in a different envelope than your usual bill? Does the account information match your current account information? Do you owe this company money? Nancy Kropiewnicki, AAAWM contract administrator and coordinator of the Kent County Elder Abuse Coalition, advises, “Being skeptical needs to be our first response when we receive these requests and we need to take the time to make sure it is legitimate before we send anyone our money.”

• Check your records. Confirm the accuracy of the bill. Whether we write it down, keep a file of previous bills, use our bank’s bill pay service, or sign up for an online account with companies we do business with, we should be able to find out rather quickly whether we owe money.

• If you’re questioning a bill, compare account numbers. Often the fake bill has a completely different account number than your actual account. Additionally, Kropiewnicki warns, “Do not call the phone number listed on the bill as it is most likely fraudulent. Look up the company’s phone number on a previous bill, the phone book or Google and call to verify the authenticity of the bill.” Calling the number listed on the bill could result in more scams coming your way.

• Get another set of eyes on it. Do you have a friend or family member who would agree to be your go-to person for questionable bills/requests for payment? If you don’t have someone, you could ask your bank teller to review it, a staff person at your senior center, or trusted member of your church. It’s important to have another person look at it who might be able to notice oddities about the bill that you did not.

• Educate yourself. The Michigan State Attorney General website has a page dedicated to consumer alerts. You can also access help and resources from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

The bottom line is take your time. Kropiewnicki states, “Scammers use fear tactics to frighten people into paying phantom bills. They threaten legal action and arrest. Don’t fall for it!”

If you believe you have been a victim of fraud, contact your local law enforcement agency for help. Financial exploitation can also be reported to Adult Protective Services at (855) 444-3911.

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