Telephone and email scams are all too common these days, with perpetrators concocting myriad scenarios to demand money from victims. Popular ones include schemes about grandchildren and fake problems with PG&E.
One of the advantages of living in a small town and being known at the local bank is that employees often notice when something seems suspicious and can step in to prevent costly mistakes.
Amal Allan, branch manager and vice president at Bank of the West at 176 Main St. in Los Altos, said she and her co-workers are always looking out for their clients’ welfare. If a regular customer is doing something outside of his or her normal pattern, the Bank of the West team will try to find out what’s behind it.
One client received a phone call from a scammer claiming that her grandson had been arrested. She tried calling her daughter but couldn’t reach her. She then went to the bank to withdraw $3,000 to buy prepaid gift cards as demanded by the scammer.
“It didn’t feel right – it didn’t make sense,” Allan said, adding that the client finally disclosed the reason for the unusual withdrawal. “So we had her call her daughter one more time, and sure enough it was a fraud incident.”
It’s not just seniors who fall victim to scammers. Allan described a young woman who was conned by someone she met on Facebook and was planning to wire $30,000 to the man posing as her “fiancé.” Fortunately, that mistake was nipped in the bud.
Bank of the West employees regularly pass on advice they receive from the Los Altos Police Department.
“The majority of our elderly customers have a landline, so we tell them, ‘These scammers will not leave a message the majority of the time, so let your voicemail pick up,’” Allan said.
But occasionally, the scammers will leave messages, she said, and will warn of warrants out for the victims’ arrest, or pose as a PG&E worker and threaten to shut off their power.
The bank warns customers to exercise caution.
“If someone calls you from the bank and asks for your Social Security number, don’t give it to them – give me a call first,” Allan advised.
Partnering with the police
Once a year, Allan invites representatives of the police department in for a public forum on elder abuse and identity theft. (See below for information on this year’s event.)
“We just open it up – it has nothing to do with Bank of the West,” she said. “The local police come in and tell them what’s going on – because as much as I tell them, when they hear it from a police officer, it’s totally different.”
The police post photos of some of the scammers who have been caught and offer advice on what to watch out for.
“(Scammers) are going to call you, they’re going to try to get your information,” Allan said.
There have even been local instances of ransomware, where the scammer locks the victim’s computer and demands money.
Kelly Davis of Boston Private Bank said last year a client’s computer was hacked, with the perpetrator demanding the victim’s credit card information.
“We see things like that all the time,” Davis said. “They’re figuring out more and more new ways” to scam people.
Davis stressed the importance of never divulging passwords or clicking links in emails unless you know exactly who they are from.
“Remember that a financial institution is never going to ask for a password,” she said, warning that even if an email looks legitimate, it might be a spoof. “People think, ‘Oh, it’s my bank,’ but no, it’s somebody pretending to be your bank.”
Allan said scammers “feed on the vulnerability of senior citizens, because some of them don’t have family. So we tell them at the branch, ‘We’re your family.’ … Luckily the staff has a good rapport with them.”
Allan also warned of thieves in stores, waiting until victims’ backs are turned, and grabbing their checkbook or wallet.
“I tell (clients), ‘Zip it up. Carry a purse that’s across your shoulder. Keep your cart in front of you,’” she said.
In the bank, Allan makes sure seniors take a moment to properly secure their cash: “I tell them … ‘Count your money, put your money in your purse and then walk outside.’”
Bank employees undergo regular training on elder abuse, identity theft and red flags.
“Elderly abuse, the majority of the time it’s either family members or caregivers,” Allan said. “It’s mandatory that we report these incidents.”
But, she added, trying to keep their clients safe is “just doing the right thing.”
Tips for keeping safe from scammers
• Don’t divulge passwords, credit card numbers, Social Security numbers or other personal information on the phone or by email.
• Don’t click email links unless you are sure who sent the email. Scammers are very adept at drafting emails that look like they’re from legitimate companies. It’s safer to call the institution in question or visit its website directly (not through the email).
• Let your answering machine or voicemail answer the phone. Don’t pick up unless you know who’s calling. Scammers will rarely leave messages. If you do get a threatening message, consult with family, your bank or local authorities before sending money or divulging any personal information.
• If you receive a threatening call from PG&E, the IRS or anyone else, hang up. If you’re afraid the call might be legitimate, call the company directly.
• When shopping in stores, keep your cart in front of you at all times. Better yet, wear a cross-body shoulder bag and keep it zipped.
• Beware of suspicious checks received in the mail.
• Do not wire funds or send prepaid cash cards to strangers.
• Beware of notifications of foreign lottery wins or prizes from contests you did not enter.
Representatives from the Los Altos Police Department are scheduled to host a talk on elder abuse and identity theft 5:30 p.m. Feb. 13 at Bank of the West, 176 Main St., Los Altos. Information: 948-4468.