BRUNSWICK

They tell you you’ve won the lottery, but that you have to give them money in order to get your winnings. Or they pretend to be a bill collector or the IRS, collecting money that they say you owe. They may even pretend to be a grandchild claiming they have been arrested and need money to get out of trouble.

Those are all examples of fraud, which costs American seniors nearly $3 billion each year.

Fraud was among the topics at a Lunch and Learn session for seniors held Wednesday in Brunswick, organized by Cumberland County Sheriff ’s Office and Merrymeeting Bay TRIAD.

“They are literally stealing billions of dollars from millions of people across this country every single year,” Jane Margesson of AARP said. “Many of you have heard of the IRS scam, or the grandparent scam or the lottery scam. They’re just a dime a dozen and unfortunately these scammers are very, very good at what they do.”

Scammers try to get their victims in an emotionally heightened state that can create a sense of bewilderment, Margesson said. In one scam, someone says they are calling from the IRS and tell their potential victims they will be arrested if they don’t pay immediately.

“But isn’t it scary to get a call from the IRS saying you owe something?” Margesson said. “Likely the first thing you start thinking is, ‘Did I really not pay? Do I owe something? Is someone really going to come to my door and arrest me?’”

Margesson told the story of a woman who was told she won $7.9 million in a Jamaican lottery. She was excited, and paid the fees she said she was told to pay in order to get her winnings. Before long, she’d handed over $30,000.

She finally stopped paying and reported the scam to police. The scammer then started leaving abusive messages, and threatened to set her house on fire if she didn’t pay.

‘Can you hear me?’

On Sunday, Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, who chairs the Senate Aging Committee, issued a warning about the so-called “Can You Hear Me?” or “Say Yes” scam.

According to Collins’ office: “Through this scam, the caller will ask a simple question such as ‘Are you there?’ or ‘Can you hear me?’ in hopes that the recipient of the call will say ‘Yes.’ The scammer records the affirmative answer and then uses that recorded voice to authorize unwanted charges on items like utility bills, phone bills, or even stolen credit cards.”

“This scam is particularly deceiving, as it can happen quite quickly and without any acknowledgment that the victim has been scammed,” Collins said. “If you receive a call from someone you don’t know asking a question such as ‘Can you hear me?’ you should respond by just hanging up the phone.”

Some scammers pretend to be collection agencies or even locally known entities, such as Central Maine Power Co., claiming you have unpaid bills.

In February, Mid Coast Hospital started warning the community about a phone scam targeting patients. The hospital said scammers were calling patients and disguising themselves as Mid Coast Hospital, manipulating the Caller ID to make the call seem more legitimate.

On Wednesday, one woman told Margesson she got a call from a scammer telling her she’d won the Megabucks but had to pay $350 by getting a prepaid debit card. Scammers always want to get paid in a hurry, Margesson said, and will want your credit card number, want you to wire them money or to pay through other quick pay methods such as iTunes.

Once the money has left your hand, it is likely gone for good.

Fighting back

“The best thing to do is hang up the phone. … Verify the information. Do your homework,” Margesson said.

If you don’t know the person you’re sending the money to, don’t send the money, she said. Call the Fraud Watch Network (aarp.org/fraudwatchnetwork) or local police and ask them what to do. Never make a buying decision in a heightened emotional state, and ask more questions. Some people even develop a refusal script, Margesson said.

The best way to protect yourself from identify theft is to place a freeze on your credit report, which is free in Maine.

People can call the Fraud Fighter Call Center to talk to a volunteer trained to spot and report fraud at 1-877-908- 3360.

Sen. Collins has urged anyone that has received such a call, or has a loved one who has, to report it to the Aging Committee’s toll-free Hotline at 1-855-303-9470.

On March 7, Collins and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, DNew York, introduced the Senior Financial Empowerment Act, new bipartisan legislation to protect seniors from financial fraud. The bill would improve how senior financial abuse is reported, establish a national hotline to advise seniors on where and how to report fraud, and provide more resources to combat financial exploitation of seniors before it happens, according to a Collins’ office.

“From scams originating overseas to exploitation by trusted family members and guardians at home, financial fraud targeting older Americans is a growing epidemic that costs seniors an estimated $2.9 billion annually,” said Collins.

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