By Tim Leeds/Havre Daily Newsemail@example.com
Representatives of the state AARP, the Montana Senior Citizens Association and the state auditor's office spoke Tuesday to a packed house at the North Central Senior Citizens Center in Havre about ways to avoid being victims of consumer fraud.
Havre is one of 23 communities in which state Auditor John Morrison, the AARP and the senior association are holding meetings to educate people about fraud and financial crimes.
As an indicator of attendance at the 4-hour Havre meeting, 172 lunches were served, 10 more than were served when the presentation was made in Billings, according to the AARP.
The issues discussed included identity theft, fraud, how to protect investments, how to avoid Medicare fraud, and how credit reports have begun affecting people's premiums for home and auto insurance and approval for homeowner and auto insurance coveage.
Fred Thackeray, who lives north of Havre, said he heard a lot of important and interesting information at the meeting.
"I'm going to be a lot more careful," he added.
Dave LaValley, who lives north of Joplin, said he hasn't been a victim of the types of crimes talked about at the meeting, but he knows people who have. The meeting told him how to avoid becoming a victim, he said.
"It's good information. Everybody should have this," he said.
Morrison, who is running for re-election this year, said during his presentation that his office works to protect consumers in Montana, and that he wants to educate, not frighten, people in the state.
"It is not our intent to persuade people to stash their money in a mattress," Morrison said. "We want people to do business in Montana and to feel confident doing business in Montana."
He said in an interview that fraud is a great concern for senior citizens, but that the information at the meetings isn't just for seniors.
"Financial fraud is a concern for everyone, but seniors are targeted more than other people so they have to be especially aware," Morrison said. "You can't completely protect yourself, but there are some simple steps you can take that are reasonable and prudent to protect yourself."
Separate meetings are being offered for members of the legal community on the tour. Two were scheduled for Havre because of high demand.
Havre Police Chief Mike Barthel, who spoke at the meeting at the senior center, said the morning law enforcement training session included law enforcement officers and representatives of the county attorneys' offices in Blaine, Chouteau and Toole counties as well as Hill County and Havre and representatives of the FBI and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.
"Knowing what resources are available to law enforcement is a helpful tool," Barthel said. "Fraud and white-collar crime is on the rise."
Barthel said he speaks at the senior center every couple of weeks to tell people about specific types of fraud his department has heard about in the Havre area.
Morrison said identity theft is a rising problem in the state and in the country. People committing the crime find information about a person, then apply for accounts or use existing accounts in that person's name.
"It costs the country $47 billion every year," he said, "$47 billion that otherwise would be flowing through our communities in legitimate transactions."
Identity theft can happen in a variety of ways, including people looking over other people's shoulders while they're using their personal identification numbers for credit cards or bank cards, or to photograph or memorize account numbers. Criminals also take information from receipts and bills people have thrown away. They try to get personal information from potential victims over the telephone or Internet, Morrison said.
People have been denied employment, credit and medical care because of transactions someone has made with their stolen identities, he said.
Everyone should use great care with their personal information, Morrison said. They should be careful about using or giving away their PIN. They should shred documents and receipts with personal and financial information before throwing them away, and they shouldn't give personal information over the Internet or by telephone unless they are absolutely sure they can trust the person they are giving it to, he said.
Morrison said one way to help reduce risk is by getting on the national and state do-not-call lists. With a few exceptions, including charities and companies a person already does business with, businesses cannot call people on the list.
If a person on the list receives a call from a business not exempted from the restriction, "That's a signal they may not be legitimate," he said.
For more information about consumer fraud or to report possible fraud or financial crimes, contact the state auditor's office at (800) 332-6148.
On the Net: State auditor's office: www.state.mt.us/sao
AARP Montana: www.aarp.org/mt