Seniors warned not be easy targets for scammers who want their money

Groton - About two and a half weeks ago, Phyllis Hackett received a phone call telling her that she'd won $1.5 million and a car.

Two men then began calling twice a week, promising to show up with balloons and flowers and cameras. They told her to dress up for the occasion.

They also said they needed money from her to pay the taxes on the winnings.

Hackett, 80, a retired Pfizer employee from Mystic, started to believe it was true. She mailed them almost $11,000 in cash. Then she told her son. He brought her to the police.

"I lost almost $11,000 to my own stupidity," Hackett told an audience of about 50 at the Groton Senior Center Friday during a forum on Medicare fraud and scams that target seniors.

U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, spoke to the seniors, as did Edith Prague, commissioner of the Connecticut Department on Aging; Christine Hager, regional director of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; and Susan Waddell, special agent with the Office of Inspector General.

Their collective advice? Never give out personal information like your Medicare or Social Security numbers, and hang up if you don't know who the caller is. Check Medicare billing statements to make sure you're getting the services that are being billed in your name, and call the doctor's office if something looks wrong.

"Most of us grew up in a time when we could trust other people," Prague said. "And that's part of our problem. We're too trusting."

As for calls from would-be scam artists, Prague said, "First of all, don't answer it. And if you do answer it, hang up. Or tell them to drop dead."

Courtney told the audience his family almost was victimized by a scam.

About a month ago, he said, his 85-year-old mother-in-law from South Windsor called him in Washington. She was frantic, saying Courtney's 22-year-old son, Bobby, had been arrested in Chicago. She said Bobby was in jail and would end up with a record and lose his job if she didn't wire $3,000 right away.

Courtney said he called the number to reach the "police officer" and the guy was convincing. So he called a fellow congressman in Chicago, explained the situation and said he might need a lawyer.

Then Courtney learned the fake number wasn't in Chicago at all, but was a number in Montreal, Canada. His son had been at work the whole time.

"She was this close to wiring $3,000 to the number because it was her grandson," Courtney said.

Christie Hager said scam artists are clever, so their ideas can be quite creative. She provided examples.

The Grandparent Scam: Someone calls and says a loved one, often a grandchild, is in trouble with police, in the hospital or stuck in another country and needs money. The caller tells you to wire money to a specific place.

The Medicare Scam: Someone calls saying they're a Medicare employee or insurance representative and they need Social Security numbers and bank account numbers. No such questions actually would be asked.

The Sweepstakes Scam: Someone calls and offers you a "free" prize or says you've won a sweepstakes, but the caller needs your credit card information, money or for you to go somewhere to collect your prize.

The FBI Scam: A representative of a "security company" calls offering a new system, telling you the FBI did a survey of your area and found an increase in home invasions in the neighborhood.

The scams are designed to extract money or personal information that people should guard. But, Hager said, "If you do inadvertently disclose that information, don't feel ashamed or stupid." Report it, she said.

Wadell said some of the Office of Inspector General's largest recoveries began with a single person calling a tip line.

Hackett said she feels stupid because of what happened to her. She said her son and daughter-in-law took her to the police, who took down her information. She didn't get any of her money back, but she still wanted to warn others.

"I learned a big, big lesson," Hackett told the seniors. "So watch it."

d.straszheim@theday.com

WHO TO CALL

Medicare and all other health related scams can be reported by contacting the Senior Medicare Patrol program at 1-800-994-9422.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services tip line collects reports of fraud. The hotline number is open 24 hours: 1-800-HHS-TIPS, or 1-800-447-8477.

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