AUBURN — Clover Manor resident Linda DeStefano said she learned her lesson about getting taken by scams the hard way.
She watched Thursday morning from the balcony as U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud and Derick Rill of the Federal Trade Commission presented a seminar to her friends and neighbors on avoiding scams and frauds.
It was a good lesson, she said, one she wished she’d heard years ago.
“People think you’re foolish when you talk about getting caught up in something like this,” DeStefano said. “But they don’t know what it’s like when you’re not sure of anything and your mind is not in the place it should be.”
Michaud said he was told about a group of Jamaican con artists who were targeting Mainers in December, and that’s why he scheduled Thursday’s seminar.
“Unfortunately this is becoming a problem in the state of Maine and across New England as increasingly sophisticated con artists target our senior citizens,” Michaud said. “Their technology is advanced, and they have found even better ways of targeting victims — by phone, email, by Postal Service or any combination of the three.”
DeStefano said she was contacted by scammers two years ago after several members of her family had died. They promised to pay her a fee if she would cash a cashiers check for them at her bank. Then, they asked her to send the money back to them.
She did, but the check they sent was a bad one. She lost a lot of money.
“I knew better, but I wasn’t in the right position in my head to not fall for that stuff,” she said. “It was an overwhelming month for me, and I was lost. And they got me right in the pit of my stomach. “
It’s a common enough story, Rill told the crowd: Elders may know perfectly well to watch their purse when they go out or lock their doors when they come home, but they forget to watch out for scams.
“Being diligent is good,” Rill said. “What I hope to do is to graduate you as consumer education ambassadors to the person that is not here. We have free materials from the federal government. Please, take them to your churches and make sure that your friends and neighbors know. Tell them what you’ve learned.”
Scammers have many schemes and high-tech tools at their disposal to separate people from their money, but the elderly only need one low-tech solution to protect themselves, Rill said: Verify everything you are unsure of with at least two trusted sources.
“It works for any offer that comes your way,” Rill said. “If you do that, you will avoid every type of fraud that I have ever encountered. Find an expert, someone that is known to be honest and has no money at stake.”
It works for sales calls and so-called sweepstakes, it works for identity theft and it works for scams like the one that caught DeStefano.
“When someone comes to repave your driveway, are you going to trust the testimonials from the people they give you, or are you going to talk to your neighbors and your loved ones?” Rill said.
Rill urged elders to visit the Federal Trade Commission website, www.ftc.gov, to get information about scams, check up on companies or charities, and file complaints when they feel they have been fooled. They can also call the FTC toll free at 1-877-382-4357.
Closer to home, Rill suggested they speak to the Maine Attorney General’s Office, local police and trusted family members if they are unsure of anything.
“We can be one of those trusted sources, and we can all help you find others,” he said.
Rill said the presentation was one of many he gives across the country at the request of Congress members.