By Matt Roy and Rusty Bradshaw, Independent Newsmedia
Scammers have, apparently, declared open season on Sun Cities seniors.
Residents have reported a spate of recent scams attempts and cons targeting area residents, including email scams, phony phone calls and con-by-mail ploys.
Sun City West resident Beverly Bruno moved to town a year ago from New Jersey. When the call came in this week, she quickly recognized a familiar home shopper scam.
“This happened to my friend back in New Jersey,” Ms. Bruno said. “I am just so tired of people trying to take advantage. They know we’re older and must think it’s an easy target.”
She contacted the Sun City West Independent after receiving a packet by overnight mail containing a live check for $2,975 from an Edward Albert and drawn on a Florida Community Bank account, along with detailed instructions on how she could earn $300 by participating as a mystery shopper.
According the instructions she received, to opt in she would need to deposit the check and then purchase a number of specific items – including money orders and gift cards – and then ship them to a return address not provided in the documents. That would be obtained later by phone or email after making the purchases.
Those purchased would be shipped and the willing victim would expect to keep the remaining balance to realize a $300 profit for a mere afternoon of labor. Ms. Bruno, who said she worked for decades in the finance industry, said the scam was immediately obvious to her, though her friend back east was not so lucky.
“For her, they wanted her to go to Dunkin’ Donuts and Starbucks and report on the service she received,” Ms. Bruno said.
After the gift card purchases were made, the deposited check used to fund the whole enterprise was reported as stopped by the bank and the money was deducted from her friend’s account.
When the scam succeeds, the perpetrator gets away with untraceable money orders and gift cards, while the victim is left with $300 cash and a $3000 bank overdraft, she said.
Likewise, in the packet she received at her Sun City West home, Ms. Bruno was asked to make the purchases with the deposited check and then contact one Michael Gregory at firstname.lastname@example.org. But instead, she called the Arizona Attorney General’s Office, which is sending forms to fill out and report the incident.
Another Sun City West resident, Pat Nemec, said she received a call during the last week of May from a man claiming to be her grandson.
“’Hi, how are you? Oh, come on. You recognize my voice, it’s your grandson,’” she said he said. Conversation ensued, he said his brothers were doing fine and that he was living in Toronto before she called him a liar and hung up the phone.
Only four days later, another mystery man rang her up claiming kinship.
“Which grandson? The handsome one,” the second scammer said. He that he and the other grandchildren had been desperate to reach her and could she send $3000 to help pay for funeral expenses for another recently deceased relation.
Fortunately, Ms. Nemec – who is of sound and has no grandsons – never fell for the ploy. But the prevalence of such nefarious efforts suggests that vulnerable seniors may be at risk for exploitation.
Katy O’Grady, general services officer for Recreation Centers of Sun City West, said her organization is aware of scams in the community. She reported on the RCSCW website last week a reported attempt to con another resident, this time with an e-mail appeal sent to Boomer Club Gus Grell, which bore the RCSCW logo.
That email spun a narrative targeted at RCSCW clubs, a tale of woe involving an appeal to help another local and “save her son,” who had fallen ill and was stranded overseas. In the case of the email, the call to action invited the reader to click through a link, which likely would have exposed him to a phishing or malware attack.
Fortunately, again, Mr. Grell saw through the ruse and reported the attempt to officials. Other recipients might not be so lucky, Ms. O’Grady said, clarifying that RCSCW officials would never make or allow such an appeal.
“We cannot stop scammers from trolling our website and pulling down our logo to use in scams like these, but when we become aware of them, we do put out notices as soon as we can,” she said. “We control the use of our logo as closely as we can. We also advise our residents to use best practices when they see things like this. Don’t respond to unsolicited invitations to donate money. And always verify the source of such requests. The rec centers, for the record, would never support the solicitation of money for something like this.”
In neighboring Sun City, residents face similar concerns and community leaders are working to educate and warn them of the dangers.
Sun City Home Owners Association officials receive a high volume of calls from residents telling of a variety of situations they experience. Residents also call the Independent and share scam attempts they receive.
“How we wish scams would stop and go away,” stated Carole Studdard, SCHOA executive director, in a news e-blast to members. “Unfortunately, this isn’t happening.”
Residents’ best defense is to protect themselves, Ms. Studdard stated. Arizona Attorney General officials agree, which addresses a variety of fraud and deceptive practices, including financial scams, telemarketing fraud, home repair and bogus charities.
“Con artists use everyday tools to commit these types of scams — the mailbox, the telephone and the internet,” as stated on the Attorney General’s website, www.azag.gov.
Other areas the Attorney General’s Office investigates are charity scams, predatory lending, debt collections, pyramid schemes, door-to-door sales, sweepstakes and lotteries, Internet auctions, travel scams, home improvement schemes and moving fraud. Some of these activities are legal, but scammers use them as a way to trick people, mostly senior citizens, into paying for items and services that may never be given or performed.
SCHOA officials conduct regular town hall meetings focusing on a variety of community issues and scams have been a topic in past meetings.
Scams and fraud are committed in a variety of ways and against groups as well as individuals. Jessica Potter Slider, Friends of the Sun City Libraries board member, reported in the group’s May meeting she received a form purportedly from a “Department of Compliance.”
“I was filling it out but some of the questions made me uncomfortable,” she said. “So I Googled it and found out it was a scam.”
Tim Geiger, another Friends board member, said he receives similar forms at his business.
“It is a company that wants to take over the filing of your official documents with agencies like the Arizona Corporation Commission,” he explained.
Nonprofit organizations must file annually with the ACC.
Individuals can not only be approached at their homes, but when they are out in the community. Resident Joanne Rand described an instance in which she was approached by a man who claimed he could repair a damaged bumper on her car.
“He approached me on the pretext of buying my granddaughter’s car,” Ms. Rand said. “When he was there he saw my bumper and said he could fix that.”
The man insisted on being paid in cash in advance of the work. But Ms. Rand said all he did was sand off the paint, put on a coat of a green liquid and covered it with car wax.
“I had to pay someone to get that green stuff off,” Ms. Rand explained.
She said he appeared legitimate, providing a card with a business name, his name and a telephone number.
“He used a fake name — Zach Miller. I knew it was fake because he was Hispanic,” Ms. Rand said.
The telephone number on his card was also fake, she added.
Arizona Attorney General’s Office officials urge residents to not trust a company name in instances such as these.
“Contact a company or agency, directly, to verify if they made the call or sent the letter,” the website states.
Residents can also call to verify companies when approached in person. This should be done before agreeing to any work being done and paying the person who approached them.
Other tips offered by the AG’s staff include do not give anyone financial or other personal information unless they are known to be legitimate and do not wire money or send a check to someone unknown. AG officials also encourage registering telephone numbers, including cellphones, with www.DoNotCall.gov.
“Scammers ignore it, but legitimate businesses generally honor the list,” the AG website states.
Ms. Studdard offered a number of other things that can be done to protect against scams.
“Do not pay in advance for services provided,” she stated in the e-blast. “Read the fine print (on any agreement or contract).”
Other tips she offered are be informed, get at least three bids before committing to have work done, avoid being pressured to make a decision, avoid doing business with people who are unknown, be cautious of door-to-door solicitors, do not negotiate with anyone unknown over the phone, ask if a business is licensed and check with friends of relatives before doing business with someone unknown.
SCHOA maintains a vendor referral list of reliable businesses in a variety of areas that are vetted by SCHOA officials. Check the list at the SCHOA office, 10401 W. Coggins Drive, and members can access the list online at www.suncityhoa.org.
Arizona AG officials encourage residents who believe they have been scammed to call 602-542-2124 or email email@example.com. Provide as much information about the alleged perpetrator as possible.