Char Jebens knows life can be challenging in a high-tech global society, especially for many who didn't grow up with it. In her work with older people, she sees how confusing unsolicited phone calls, e-mails and pop-up Internet ads can be.
"I knew there was a lot of fraud out there" targeting people 50 and older, she said. "I thought we needed to alert them."
Jebens, 69, of Brooklyn Park, signed up last year to become an AARP Minnesota Fraud Fighter, one of more than 60 volunteers working to save fellow Minnesotans from swindle-related loss.
She joined a project to sort through suspicious-looking e-mails that Fraud Fighters forward to the AARP office. Its goal: to compile tips that save people from paying for something they didn't order or want.
Fraudulent schemes in recent years include phony lotteries and fake sweepstakes, the Minnesota Department of Public Safety (DPS) reported. Scammers trick their victims into sending hefty upfront fees — for taxes, scammers claim — on winnings that don't exist. About $31 million leaves Minnesota yearly in lottery scams, Bill White, a special agent for DPS, said at an AARP seminar on fraud in Mankato, one of many sessions offered around the state. "Every week we get a case of loss of $100,000 or more" from scams, he said.
Identity theft is another threat to guard against, said Jeff Long, a postal inspector with the U.S. Postal Inspection Service. "Don't carry your Social Security card in your wallet," he told the seminar audience, because in 98 percent of cases, identity theft begins not with stolen mail but a lost or stolen purse. He recommended people photocopy their Medicare cards, cut out all numbers on the copy except the last four and carry only the copy. He also suggested people photocopy the front and back of all credit cards and put the paper in a safe place at home. If cards are lost or stolen, Long said, the copies help people report the loss.
Fraud Fighters help alert others
Jebens is a nurse who directed home-care and hospice services. She now assists older people in navigating the health care system and altering their lifestyles to improve health and longevity.
While reading the newspaper one day, she saw a Medicare ad promising free drugs.
"I happened to know that what they were saying could not be right," Jebens said.
Because she was a Fraud Fighter, she knew to call AARP Minnesota, which contacted the Better Business Bureau. After investigators determined it was a scam, they took action to make sure the ad would not appear again.
"Fraud is so underreported," said Amy McDonough, AARP Minnesota communications director.
Fraud Fighters help spread the word to organizations and churches in their communities.
McDonough called Jebens "one of our stars" because she's well connected to networks that serve people 50 and older.
She is a resourceful grandmother, too. Jebens pays her 13-year-old grandson, Ishan, $20 a month to teach her computer shortcuts, post photos and check for computer viruses so she can use the Internet safely. That lets her alert AARP to suspected scams and warn the nearly 500 people in her e-mail network.
Everyone needs to become aware of fraud and unafraid to report it, said Michele Kimball, AARP Minnesota state director. "That means anything that just doesn't feel right."
AARP Minnesota has urged the legislature to develop additional protections for consumers but has not endorsed a specific plan.
To learn more about Fraud Fighter training or seminar dates, visit the AARP Minnesota website.
To request a Fraud Fighter information packet or to arrange for a speaker in your community, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call 1-866-554-5381 toll-free.
Protect yourself against fraud
- If an offer sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
- Provide financial or personal information only to trusted organizations.
- Do not pay anyone to help you receive benefits under the new health insurance law.
- Check your online bank account daily for unauthorized activity; report possible errors to your bank.
- Monitor credit card statements; report any charges you didn't make to your credit card company.
- Before you open the door to someone selling something, ask to see a city permit for making house calls.
- Request a free copy of your credit report at www.annualcreditreport.com yearly.
- Report questionable Medicare and other health care charges in Minnesota to the Senior Linkage Line, 1-800-333-2433.
Kay Harvey is a freelance writer in Woodbury, Minn.