When Angela DeLeon heads out to do seminars on financial safety for seniors, she takes along statistics, handouts filled with practical advice and a visual aid she calls her "wall of shame." The board, which DeLeon says is updated all too often, is filled with stories of older adults who have been swindled.
"Seniors are the age group of choice for scam artists," says DeLeon, coordinator of the People's Bank Masters Program in Connecticut, which sponsors free seminars at senior centers and housing complexes.
Criminals bilk consumers of all ages of more than $40 billion every year. But studies done by the American Association of Retired Persons show that the elderly are targets of such scams as fraudulent contests, charities and sweepstakes; worthless products; money-recovery and get-rich-quick schemes; home-improvement and travel offers; and, perhaps most importantly, health-care fraud, considered by the U.S. Justice Department to be the country's No. 1 white-collar crime.
DeLeon offers advice on such matters as picking a secure bank-card personal identification number, dealing with telemarketers and staying safe while shopping and traveling.
For starters, always be conscious of your surroundings -- stay alert, act confident and be aware of people around you. Most important, trust your instincts: If you develop an uncomfortable feeling about a situation, leave, seek help or hang up the phone.
"If you are using the ATM machine, and someone is standing uncomfortably close, press the cancel button and leave," DeLeon says. "When you feel concerned about walking to your car alone, go back inside and ask for an escort. If someone on the phone is pressuring you for information, a contribution or to buy something, just hang up."
Because bus trips to casinos are popular activities for many seniors, DeLeon includes casino safety tips as well: "Wear a fanny pack, not a purse; don't put your wallet in your back pocket; request your winnings in a check; and don't brag about how much you won or flash cash on the bus ride home."
Other financial safety tips:
* When using ATMs, choose a personal identification number that's easy to remember, but avoid the obvious, such as your birthday or 1-2-3-4. Don't give your PIN to anyone, don't say it out loud and don't write it down.
* Have your ATM card ready, and fill out papers before you get to the ATM. Put cash away before you leave.
* Don't take money from your bank account if a stranger asks you to.
* Never give your credit card or bank account number over the phone to people who have called to sell something or solicit a contribution.
* Don't carry a lot of cash or credit cards you don't need. Try not to carry a purse. Put your money, credit cards or wallet in an inside pocket.
* Stay away from deals that seem too good to be true. Beware of deals that insist you make a decision quickly, that ask for a lot of money up front or that guarantee success in a risky venture.
* Don't be taken in by quick fixes or miracle cures for health problems. Ask your doctor before you buy.