Elliott Greenblott | AARP Fraud Watch: Rural environment fertile ground for scammers


Living in rural New England has many pluses. Fresh air, slower paced lifestyle, farmers market-fresh food, abundant recreation.

Sadly, our rural environment does not protect us from the onslaught of scams and frauds that bombard us by phone, mail or the computer. Likewise, we have no protection from the con artists who work their craft person-to-person.

There are some very specific attacks that target rural residents as well as those who live in our small towns. Mailbox looting, package delivery theft, door-to-door impersonators, and home improvement cons are showing up throughout the region.

Mailbox looting has grown in communities bordering neighboring states. While many folks fear the loss of incoming mail, the greater threat comes with the theft of outgoing mail. We all know the routine. You have a bill to pay so you write a check and place the envelope in your roadside mailbox. Oops — don't forget to raise the little red flag so the postman knows there is a pickup! That also alerts the scammer.

There are numerous reports of individuals driving the rural roads and looking for those little red flags. They remove outgoing mail looking for that check that is being used for payment – that check that displays your name, address, phone number, bank routing number, and bank account number.

With that information and a stop at Amazon or an office supply store for blank checks, it is easy to print and pass fraudulent checks on your account.

What to do — unless there is no alternative, do not use your mailbox for outgoing checks. Instead, bring the payment to the post office or a locked postal mailbox.

Alternatively, purchase a lockable mailbox (contact the US Postal Service or go online to check requirements). They are available at many hardware or rural supply stores and online for as little as $30.

Another safe practice is to pay bills, when possible, by direct withdrawal from your checking account. For parcel delivery, request that deliveries be made at specific times, ask for parcels to be held for pick up, or request an alternative delivery location where somebody can receive the package for you.

Another rural fraud threat comes from individuals who claim to be Medicare or Social Security agency employees (could also be another federal or state government employee, bank representative, etc.). They request an appointment to visit your home and discuss your account or benefits.

This is not how the government or institutions operate. Never invite these individuals into your home and immediately report the contact to the "real" agency or organization to verify the contact. Be sure to record any phone numbers or names given to you and report these to law enforcement.

Our next warning on current rural fraud this summer is the home improvement scam.

Another scam, often committed by transients, involves approaching residents with the opportunity to have home repair work completed for far less than the usual price. One example is an opportunity to have driveway seal applied to a cracked or worn surface.

The con artist tells you that they were working in the area on a job and had enough "extra" sealer to cover your driveway (substitute roofing shingles, paint, etc). The actual product that is being sold is inferior, often a water soluble or oil-based liquid that may even be hazardous. In this situation, the old adages "If it looks too good to be true, it probably is," or "You get what you pay for," apply. Make purchases from reputable vendors.

These recommendations apply to all home improvement work, whether the contractor is local or transient. Ask for local references and check them before any work is done or money changes hands.

Also, ask the vendor/contractor for a copy of their liability insurance policy or bonding documents. Fraudulent home improvement contractors often operate with expired policies or forged policies so you want to check with the insurance carrier before any payment is made.

In addition, it is important to know that there is no specific regulation or requirement related to the quality of work that is done. If you are dissatisfied with the quality, you must rely on the integrity of the contractor or face the need to bring litigation.

As always, protecting yourself from falling victim to scams involves a good deal of vigilance and common sense. If you believe you are being targeted or are a victim of a scam, contact your state attorney general's office.

If you are a victim of identity theft, notify the Federal Trade Commission and local law enforcement. For assistance and support, call our volunteer support line at (877) 908-3360 or visit our website aarp.org/fraudwatchnetwork for information and assistance.

AARP Fraud Watch Network presents workshops and provides literature free of charge. For information on these services, contact Elliott Greenblott at egreenblott@aarp.org or (413) 219-9778.

Elliott Greenblott is a coordinator for the AARP Fraud Watch Network and writes this biweekly column. If you suspect that you may be a victim of a computer-based scam, call the AARP Fraud Watch Network hotline at 877-908-3360 or the Massachusetts Attorney General's Consumer Protection Division at (617) 727-8400.


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