DALTON — The Council on Aging in Dalton handles three or four calls a year from concerned residents who suspect they’ve been taken advantage of by scam artists, frequently those working over the phone.
“Those three or four people could lose thousands of dollars,” said Kelly Pizzi, director of the council and the senior center.
Calls like that and the potential for reduced online privacy protections under the Trump administration motivated Pizzi to organize a presentation on online safety at the center on Monday, presented by the state’s Office of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulation as part of its effort to increase outreach in Western Massachusetts.
Trump signed a congressional resolution on Monday to complete the overturning of internet privacy protections created during the Obama administration. The change will also allow broadband internet service suppliers like cable and telecommunications companies to more easily track and sell a customer’s online information, according to the New York Times.
Robin Putnam, research and special projects manager for the office, had one key piece of advice for the about 15 attendees: keep track of account activity and investigate at the first sign of trouble.
“You should be monitoring your accounts like a hawk,” she said. When statements come in from the bank and credit card companies, she cautioned the audience to scan them thoroughly and look for information that seems not to match up — including small charges. Thieves often don’t make large charges right away, as they know that could be noticed quickly, she said.
Many people don’t check their statements thoroughly. Frequently, people don’t think scammers will be able to find information about them that could be misused, she said.
“They think, ‘I don’t use Facebook. How do they find information about me?’ ” she said.
Putnam cautioned that the information is out there — it’s frequently publicly available for free or for a nominal fee at various websites.
Advances in technology have also increased the ability to fraudulently gather personal data, including ‘near field’ communication utilized by some credit cards. It allows consumers to pay for merchandise without having to swipe or scan their cards, but it also makes it easy for thieves to intercept the signal using a transponder purchased on the black market.
Putnam’s mother had her card information stolen by a disgruntled department store employee who simply took a photo of the front and back of the card at checkout. Her mother soon found about $3,000 to $4,000 in charges she didn’t make on her account.
Putnam also talked to the audience about particular scams, some well-known, others less so. Calls from fake IRS agents seeking information, one-ring phone calls that re-route the target’s number through multiple countries and calls from people pretending to be a family member seeking money — all can be handled just by hanging up.
Audience members asked about how to keep their information secure online. One tip — use your own secure network — applies to situations where sensitive information like social security numbers, bank account information and credit card numbers are sent online.
“Don’t do it at the library,” Putnam said. “They’re going to give the same password to whoever wants to use the network.”
She talked about other simple ways to keep information safe, both online and in day-to-day life.
She told attendees to look for an ‘s’ after the ‘http’ in the website address, or a lock icon next to the address. This signifies the site is secure.
She also advised the audience to change their passwords once a month, if possible. Putnam has a rule that she will cancel any card she loses for more than 5 minutes — that’s enough time for a potential thief to take a picture of her card. Putnam’s card was stolen after it fell out of her pocket. She realized the theft quickly and went to a branch of her bank. Someone was already trying to use the card.
If theft does occur, it’s easier to deal with if it happens through a credit card, rather than a debit card, as a debit card takes money directly out of the account, she said.
Technology has affected the scam landscape, but fraud and identity theft still occur through the more old-fashioned method of mail fraud, where people go through trash looking for documents containing personal information, she said.
Although Putnam’s presentation was to a group of largely older residents, she pointed out that younger generations are often more apt to fall for scams.
An audience member shared her experience with a scam call from a person pretending to be her grandson asking for money. She asked the caller if he had his son with him. He said yes. She told him her grandson doesn’t have a son.
Phone scammers like people pretending to be IRS agents are counting on fear, Putnam said.
“They’re hoping that you’re going to panic and give away information,” she said. “Just hang up and don’t keep them on the line.”