— Con artists use an ar­sen­al of tricks to har­vest cash from the eld­erly, the greedy and the lonely. Even the dead aren’t safe.

Sid Kirsch­heimer knows from scams.

For the last 10 years, the North­east High School alum has been re­port­ing on con games for the AARP Bul­let­in, and he’s seen them all — from out­rageous to heart-break­ing.

“All of them are kind of bizarre in one way or an­oth­er,” he said of scams that vic­tim­ize seni­or cit­izens. Even le­git­im­ate sales, done door-to-door, can make your head spin. He men­tioned the story of an eld­erly fel­low who paid $4,000 for a va­cu­um clean­er, but more about that later.

Be­sides re­port­ing for the AARP’s monthly pub­lic­a­tion, cir­cu­la­tion 22 mil­lion, Kirsch­heimer has writ­ten more than a dozen books and con­trib­uted to NBC’s Today Show

And no, he’s nev­er been the vic­tim of a scam.

“That’s be­cause I don’t trust any­body,” he said in a March 20 phone in­ter­view.

That’s not to say you should lock your­self in your house and nev­er an­swer your phone, but, ac­cord­ing to Kirsch­heimer, there are some ob­vi­ous pre­cepts to fol­low.

Don’t open your door to strangers, and don’t give out per­son­al in­form­a­tion, es­pe­cially your So­cial Se­cur­ity num­ber, over the phone.

“That’s the holy grail for scam­mers,” he said. Once they have a name, ad­dress and So­cial Se­cur­ity num­ber, they can open phony bank ac­counts and do ser­i­ous dam­age to a vic­tim’s fin­ances.

“The vast ma­jor­ity of scams can be pre­ven­ted by not giv­ing out your per­son­al in­form­a­tion over the phone,” Kirsch­heimer said. 

There are some less ob­vi­ous things to be aware of, too.

Don’t fill out war­ranty cards, he ad­vised. Some of those cards re­quest per­son­al data that should be kept private. Also, many people put in­form­a­tion on so­cial me­dia Web sites that can be used by con artists. 

Two cons that are cur­rently most pop­u­lar in­volve phony lot­tery wins from for­eign coun­tries and people pre­tend­ing to be grand­chil­dren who say they’ve been ar­res­ted in for­eign coun­tries and need bail money wired to them.

Those who are pro­lif­ic on so­cial me­dia are more likely to be­come scam vic­tims than those who are not, he said. For ex­ample, con artists work­ing the “grand­par­ent scam” learned the names of their vic­tims’ grand­chil­dren on­line.

Kirsch­heimer avoids so­cial me­dia.

“I’m not on Linked­In and I don’t have a Face­book ac­count,” he said. “It’s do­ing the little things. … Fly a bit un­der the radar.”

Prac­ti­cing what he preaches, Kirsch­heimer guards his pri­vacy so closely that his phone in his sub­urb­an Phil­adelphia home is lis­ted, but not un­der his own name. 

Even those pre­cau­tions don’t stop con artists from try­ing.

Just 12 hours be­fore Kirsch­heimer was in­ter­viewed for this story, he said he was con­tac­ted by someone in In­dia who wanted re­mote ac­cess to his com­puter to fix a vir­us he claimed was on it. 

The writer didn’t play along. Giv­ing someone else re­mote ac­cess to your com­puter gives them ac­cess to any in­form­a­tion you have on it, he said. Also, the scam­mer in­ev­it­ably tells you he’s found a prob­lem, locks you out of your com­puter and then charges to let you get back in.


The dis­hon­est can har­vest dol­lars from the de­ceased by us­ing in­form­a­tion they find in ob­it­u­ar­ies, Kirsch­heimer wrote in the March is­sue of the AARP Bul­let­in.

In “Dead Ringers,” Kirsch­heimer wrote that the iden­tit­ies of al­most 2.5 mil­lion dead Amer­ic­ans are used an­nu­ally “to open cred­it card ac­counts, ap­ply for loans and get cell phones or oth­er ser­vices.”

The crime, nick­named “ghost­ing,” of­ten be­gins with thieves read­ing ob­it­u­ar­ies, where they can find out names, ad­dresses and birth dates. With that in­form­a­tion, con artists can go to il­li­cit over­seas Web sites and pur­chase So­cial Se­cur­ity num­bers, Kirsch­heimer wrote.

He proved that while work­ing on a seg­ment for the Today Show, he said. He was able to find out the So­cial Se­cur­ity num­ber of his show’s pro­du­cer.

“It cost me $30,” he said.

Kirsch­heimer’s tip for heirs: Omit from ob­it­u­ar­ies and death no­tices birth dates, moth­ers’ maid­en names, ad­dresses and oth­er per­son­al in­form­a­tion that might prove use­ful to iden­tity thieves.

Time is on the bad guys’ side, ac­cord­ing to Kirsch­heimer. Six months can go by be­fore banks, cred­it bur­eaus and the So­cial Se­cur­ity Ad­min­is­tra­tion get or share death re­cords. Be­sides, the dead don’t check on their cred­it rat­ings. Of­ten, their sur­viv­ors don’t check either.


Kirsch­heimer, 55, star­ted writ­ing about scams and oth­er con­sumer is­sues when he pitched a con game story to an AARP Bul­let­in ed­it­or he knew. 

“The piece got tre­mend­ous read­er fee­back,” he said, adding he soon began writ­ing the pub­lic­a­tion’s scam alerts, and for many years wrote a column called “Ask Sid.”

He star­ted out as a re­port­er for the Phil­adelphia Journ­al, worked for sev­er­al daily pa­pers in dif­fer­ent areas of the United States and then wrote books for Rodale Press. In 2006, AARP Books pub­lished Kirsch­heimer’s Scam-Proof Your Life.

There’s no short­age of vil­lains to write about.

Ac­cord­ing to the Fed­er­al Trade Com­mis­sion, grift­ers glean more than $1 bil­lion a year from hun­dreds of thou­sands of vic­tims. Kirsch­heimer, however, feels most vic­tims don’t re­port be­ing taken.

Kirsch­heimer said he has been get­ting a lot of mail about door-to-door scams.

After states like Pennsylvania opened up com­pet­i­tion, rival power com­pan­ies have be­gun send­ing rep­res­ent­at­ives door-to-door to try to per­suade res­id­ents to switch their ser­vice away from PECO. Some are le­git­im­ate, but oth­ers are con artists look­ing to get per­son­al in­form­a­tion. 

Kirsch­heimer is more than a little wary of door-to-door so­li­cit­ors.

“I don’t even want to hear what they’re selling,” he said, adding that he shoos them away from his door.

“Older people of­ten don’t do that … They’re po­lite,” he said. “Don’t be po­lite.”

One of the more out­rageous ex­amples of a le­git­im­ate, but ques­tion­able, sale, Kirsch­heimer said, was a va­cu­um clean­er that a man bought from a door-to-door sales­man for $4,000. When fin­an­cing was figured in, the price was ac­tu­ally $8,000, he said.

The FTC’S reg­u­la­tions al­low cus­tom­ers three days to back out of deals, but the cus­tom­er, whose daugh­ter told Kirsch­heimer of the high-priced va­cu­um, waited a week to change his mind, and the com­pany told the man he had to pay. 

Even­tu­ally, the com­pany re­len­ted and can­celed the sale, Kirsch­heimer said. However, the va­cu­um sale was leg­al, he said, be­cause the sales­man can charge whatever he wants.

“It’s up to you to say, ‘What? Are you out of your mind?’ ” Kirsch­heimer said.


“Ro­mance scams” are the sad­dest ripoffs, he said. The tar­gets are lonely people over 50 who some­times are tricked out of their life sav­ings.

“That really gets to me,” he said. “And it hap­pens a lot.”

It works like this:

A per­son logs onto a singles chat room for people over 50. The con artist “meets” the mark on­line and poses as a po­ten­tial lov­er. 

The chat-room chum who says he’s a wealthy over­seas busi­ness­man who runs an­im­al shel­ters or a Rus­si­an mod­el who asks you to for­give her poor com­mand of Eng­lish might ac­tu­ally be a guy in Ni­ger­ia who is send­ing out hun­dreds of mes­sages per day to people who have post­ings on dat­ing Web sites.

“They sweet talk you and then they ask you for money,” he said. Then, they ask for more.

“The av­er­age loss in that scam is $10,000,” Kirsch­heimer said. “There are nu­mer­ous cases in which people have com­mit­ted sui­cide.”

The vic­tims be­lieve in love, and scam­mers use that to their ad­vant­age, he said.

He en­cour­ages people to use com­mon sense, main­tain a high level of skep­ti­cism and real­ize things don’t just fall in their laps.

If you win the Pennsylvania Lot­tery, it’s up to you to claim your prize.

“The Lot­tery Com­mis­sion doesn’t call you,” he said. ••

Re­port­er John Loftus can be reached at 215-354-3110 or

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