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Beware Fall Scams

For scammers, autumn months are filled with opportunities

Woman with a laptop on her phone - Scam Alert

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Beware of suspicious phone calls prompting you to do something regarding Medicare enrollment. Medicare will not call and ask you for personal information.

There's reason to be frightened this month — and not just on Halloween. October brings unique opportunity for fraudsters, with threats targeting people who are in retirement or approaching it.

Medicare scams

Before and during open enrollment, which runs Oct. 15 through Dec. 7, identity thieves angle for your Social Security number by posing as Medicare employees. Claiming that new cards are being issued, agency records need updating or they can help with plan enrollment, they solicit Medicare numbers (which are the same as Social Security numbers) for "verification." Some also seek payment, pretending you've got past-due medical bills. Don't believe them — or caller ID. "Medicare will never call and ask for personal information, such as your Medicare number, over the phone," says an agency spokesman. Nor will Medicare email or visit your home unannounced to collect data that it already has.

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Cold-weather capers

As the temperature chills, telephone scammers pose as utility company employees and threaten to shut off your service because of supposedly unpaid bills. Usually they request payment via hard-to-trace prepaid debit cards, but some ask for credit card numbers or even cash, offering to send someone to pick it up. If you really are overdue, most utilities will mail at least one, if not several, notices before terminating service. Utility companies do not dispatch employees to your home for payments and rarely show up unannounced for service calls.

Also beware — and get second opinions — when contractors you've hired at low-ball rates tell you they've discovered costly jobs that you'd better take care of right away before winter sets in, such as cleaning chimneys, HVAC ducts or furnaces.

Investment fraud

The year's final quarter prompts many folks to tweak their investment portfolios or search for year-end tax breaks. Remember that free lunch seminars touted as "educational" are really sales pitches for often unsuitable if not bogus investments. Don't believe words like "guaranteed," "risk-free," "secret," "can't miss" or "limited-time offer."

Common investment scams aimed at retirees may involve oil and gas, precious metals, promissory notes, life settlements (known as "viaticals") and long-maturity annuities. Besides visiting brokercheck.finra.org, check for past lawsuits, bankruptcy filings and other dirt on advisers and companies at pacer.gov and your state securities regulator, which you can find at nasaa.org.

Charity cons

Superstorm Sandy hit in October — along with fake charities supposedly raising money for its victims. Last year, it was Ebola. And with the approaching holidays (and deadlines for year-end tax deductions), it's prime time for heartstring tugging to get you to open your wallet. Besides the disaster du jour, scams that specifically target older donors often claim to help police and fire personnel, veterans, and sick or needy children.

Unless you dialed, don't provide payment over the phone. If you didn't provide your email address to that organization, assume that email pitches are scams. Don't click on links, which could unleash dangerous malware programs into your computer. Ask door-to-door solicitors to leave some material with you so you can authenticate the organization before donating. Gauge a charity's credibility at give.org, charitynavigator.org or your state's agency that regulates charities at nasconet.org.

Sid Kirchheimer is the author of Scam-Proof Your Life, published by AARP Books/Sterling.

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