CASTRO VALLEY -- Sue Han calls it "The Grandma Scam," and it starts with a call in the middle of the night.
"They say it's a grandchild, and they're stuck in the snow in Lake Tahoe, or there's been an accident, and they need some money but don't want mom and dad to know," Han recently told a group of seniors at the Castro Valley Library during one of many free presentations she does throughout Alameda County. "Could they please send some money via Western Union?"
Or maybe it's someone making an official-sounding claim to be a police officer -- the grandchild is in trouble and money is needed for bail.
The good news is their loved one is just fine and never was in trouble. The bad news is they'll never see the money again.
Han works with Legal Assistance for Seniors, a group that provides information to seniors throughout the county on a number of matters, including consumer scams as well as Medicare, health care reform and available public benefits.
The scam seminars are always popular, Han said, although she'd like to get the word out to those who aren't in the know about such things.
"The ones who usually come are the ones who are connected, more aware," she said. "That's why they are there to begin with. I want to get to the more isolated ones."
Han said seniors are targeted by scammers for a number of reasons.
"They have money, they are more stable, have investments, are at home, and tend to listen to you," she said. "They grew up in the '20s, '30s and '40s and were taught to be polite and respectful. They'll say hello, and listen to what you have to say. "... It's so sad, you can't answer phone calls or the door and be friendly and trusting anymore."
She said seniors need to be particularly wary of lotteries and sweepstakes, offers for services or products that turn out to be nonexistent or worthless -- even phone calls from people offering protection from fraudulent activity.
As a general rule, Han said seniors should never disclose personal information over the phone if they did not make the call. If they want more information, they should find out the caller's name, company and phone number and offer to call them back. Then, have a trusted friend or relative call them back and see if it still seems legitimate.
Red flags include limited-time offers, "secrets lawyers don't want you to know about," insistence that lawyers or family members not be consulted, and upfront payments.
"Of course, if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is," she said. Han added that at nearly every seminar, she'll hear about a new scam or a twist on an old one.
"I always learn something from the audience," she said. "Each day, there's a new scam. People are getting smart about creating new kinds of fraud."
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WHAT: Consumer protection seminar from Legal Assistance for Seniors
WHEN: 1 to 3 p.m. Aug. 18
WHERE: Josephine Lum Lodge, 2747 Oliver Drive, Hayward
INFORMATION: For more on scams, fraud and identity theft, as well as other legal matters, contact Legal Assistance for Seniors at 510-832-3040 or visit www.lashicap.org.