Beware of financial scams, panelists in Pittsfield warn

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PITTSFIELD — Scam artists can't prey on the wary.

That's the message that organizers behind a Thursday forum at the Ralph J. Froio Senior Center wanted to send. The more that people know about the different frauds out there, the less likely they will be to fall victim.

The Cooperative Credit Union Association organized the event, sponsored by Greylock Federal Credit Union, as part of a series of educational events on scams that the agency is conducting throughout the region.

Peter Barry, market president at Townsquare Media, kicked off the event with real-life audio between himself and a scammer who recently called him. Barry said he sensed that the caller had nefarious intentions, and so he played along and recorded the conversation for posterity.

The caller wanted to know how Barry was related to "Jimmy."

"He's my grandson," Barry responded.

He is being charged with reckless endangerment after hitting a pregnant woman with his car, the caller said.

"He's in jail?" Barry asked, feigning surprise. "He didn't tell me that."

"He should have told you that," the caller said.

The caller pressed on, saying he needed money to get Jimmy out of jail and get the charges dropped before the pregnant woman had a miscarriage. If that happened, he told Barry, then his grandson could be charged with manslaughter.

He said he needs $5,000 in cash to make his grandson's charges go away.

"We're not talking about a criminal here," the caller said. "We're talking about your grandson."

After stopping the audio, Barry pointed out the fast-paced nature of the conversation.

"They keep up the pressure," he said, and they try not to give people time to think.

In situations like this, Police Chief Michael Wynn said, there is nothing for the police to investigate because Barry never ended up handing over the cash. Until then, he said, there is no criminal investigation.

Still, he said, "that doesn't mean that we don't want to know" that people in our community are getting these calls.

Chris McLaughlin, executive director of Elder Services, said these scammers participate in a multibillion-dollar industry. And not all of it comes by phone.

He recounted a story about his neighbor, an older woman who fell prey to people who offered to do yardwork and housework for her. He said he was skeptical of the arrangement but didn't voice it before the pair made off with some of her valuables.

The more lonely and isolated the seniors are — there's more of a likelihood in rural areas, he said — the more vulnerable they are.

"It's healthy to have a little bit of skepticism," he said. "Ask questions if something with a senior doesn't look right."

Cindy Shogry-Raimer of Greylock Federal Credit Union said staff at the bank commonly see seniors scammed out of their money. She said the issue is something the bank is working to combat through training and software tracking, but it's "a constant battle."

Stay vigilant, the panelists warned.

"Unfortunately, people are trusting," Wynn said. "There are people out there who are predatory who will take advantage of that."

Mary Shogry-Hayer, who works in victims' assistance for the Berkshire District Attorney's Office, said people should be cautious of shared bank accounts. She said that sometimes the people swindling seniors are friends or relatives who persuade them to add them to their bank account, and then they have equal rights to the money within it.

Mayor Linda Tyer said it was educational to hear from everyone. She said she saw the rise in skepticism firsthand when she sent out invitations to set up electricity savings accounts, and got calls from residents wanting to verify that the invitations weren't scams.

Walter Laskos, a senior vice president with the Cooperative Credit Union Association, said these events are making a dent in the issue. The more people know, the less likely they'll be to fall into a scammer's snares.

"If you are a fraudster," he said, "beware."

Amanda Drane can be contacted at adrane@berkshireeagle.com, @amandadrane on Twitter, and 413-496-6296.

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