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Buffalo seniors get lesson on scam prevention

Tom Dinki/WBFO News
Kevin Hanna, regional director of external affairs for AT&T, speaks with a senior at the Bell Senior Center Thursday. AT&T offered a free seminar on senior scam prevention.

Maryanne Portugues, 69, knows all too well about scams targeting older adults.


“The first time I ever got a call was years ago telling me that my Social Security benefits were going to stop,” she told WBFO. “After I started thinking and realized what I was getting upset over, (I thought), they don’t do this.”


Portugues and others at the Belle Senior Center on Buffalo’s West Side received a free seminar on how to protect themselves from scams Thursday. It was part of AT&T’s “Digital You and Cyber Aware” public education campaign, in collaboration with state Sen. Tim Kennedy and the Better Business Bureau of Upstate New York.


A study commissioned by New York state in 2016 estimated seniors get scammed out of as much as $1.5 billion a year. According to the FBI, scammers target seniors because they often have savings, are experiencing some cognitive decline and were raised to be polite and trusting.


“Seniors are most susceptible to this criminal activity, often times happening from offshore sites via online and telephone and by mail,” Kennedy, D-Buffalo said, “and so our job is to educate folks on protecting themselves from this criminal fraudulent element.”


The presentation by Kevin Hanna, regional director of external affairs for AT&T, noted scammers often pretend to be an authority like the utility company or the police, demanding payment for everything from an overdue bill to bail for a supposedly incarcerated grandson. 


He told seniors not to answer calls from unknown numbers and never provide sensitive information over the phone or through email. He also warned about gift cards, as scammers often ask victims to pay them by buying a gift card and then providing them the code on the back of the card.


“Gift cards are for giving people gifts, not to pay utility bills, not to pay the IRS, not to pay some type of tax payment,” he said.


Hanna explained scammers often convey a sense of urgency so the victims don’t have time to question the scam, but it’s always best to just hang up.


“Especially if it’s some scam where they’re saying they’re your bank or your utility company and you owe them money, you can always hang up and find that legitimate number for that business and then use that number to call them back and inquire if indeed there’s a situation where you might owe money,” he said, “but in all likelihood, it’s a scam.”


Sandy Nickerson, 68, said her fellow seniors may be hesitant to hang up due to everything from manners, gullibility and even loneliness.


“Me, I’m not gullible,” she said. “We get calls about the insurance and warranty for the car — we don’t have a car.”


She appreciated that Thursday’s presentation included a Spanish language interpreter and that Kennedy even spoke some Spanish during his talk. Many of the seniors at the center, including her boyfriend, Pedro Quinones, are Spanish speakers.


“The Spanish helped them understand more because that’s their language,” she said. “That was respectful.”


There may be some good news when it comes to scam robocalls. The Federal Communications Commission ruled in June that wireless companies can automatically block robocalls for customers by default. 


AT&T announced plans to do so in the coming months, and would be the first major wireless company to do so.


“What we’re working with the FCC and law enforcement on is to put together systems in place that will identify if the information that appears on your caller ID matches the information of the originating phone number,” Hanna said. “So at least another layer of protection can be provided.” 


Portugues and other seniors appreciated the seminar.


“It’s good to be educated first so that when you do get the call, you’re already educated about it,” she said.

Tom Dinki joined WBFO in August 2019 to cover issues affecting older adults.