— 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.
THEY SCAM DEAD PEOPLE
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 firstname.lastname@example.org