Anyone can be the victim of a crime, but seniors are often targeted by criminals who see them as easy pickings. That's why you should always be armed -- with the facts. Knowing how to secure your home against intruders and being able to spot telephone scams are the most important weapons in your arsenal.
How can I protect myself from burglary?
Burglars want to get in and out of a house or apartment quickly and without being seen, so slowing them down and bringing them out of the shadows are your best bets for home security. Always remember to close and lock your doors and windows; only 31 percent of burglars force their way into a home. Solid wood or metal doors, dead-bolt locks, and window-locking devices are the best deterrents money can buy. Other things criminals don't want to tangle with are burglar alarms, outdoor lighting, and dogs.
Once you've secured your home against break-ins, it's important not to inadvertently let a thief in through your front door. Never open the door to a stranger, and always ask service people for identification before letting them in. A peephole allows you to screen visitors safely.
Never leave a key under a flowerpot or doormat, since there's no way to protect your home against its own key in the hands of an intruder. Instead, leave an extra key with a trusted neighbor.
Whether you're at the supermarket or away for the holidays, your house is at its most vulnerable when it's unoccupied. For short absences, leave the television or light on. During vacations, have a neighbor collect your mail. Consider investing in timed lights that come on at a certain time each day.
How can I make my community less vulnerable to crime?
Keeping in touch with your neighbors is the best way to stay safe. You may want to form a neighborhood watch so you can warn one another about suspicious activity. Make sure the neighborhood is clean to broadcast the message that your community is alert and caring. Report burned-out streetlights promptly.
Another approach is to volunteer with Triad, a program that invites seniors to work with law enforcement in their area. Called Triad because of its three sponsors -- AARP (formerly known as the American Association of Retired Persons), the National Sheriffs' Association, and the International Association of Chiefs of Police -- the program gives the police an ally in the fight against crime. In Alexandria, Virginia, for example, the police department says that senior volunteers who patrol, maintain nonconfidential records and more, do the work of six to eight full-time police officers.
If I am a woman and live alone, are there any special safety measures I should take?
Don't put Ms., Miss, or Mrs. on your nameplate; use your first initial and last name only. If you feel comfortable doing so, get a male friend or relative to record the outgoing message on your answering machine. Have his message imply that there are two or more people living at your house. Never tell a caller or stranger that you're home alone.
How can I avoid getting duped by a scam artist?
Even if your house is locked up tight, some intruders may try to worm their way into it through the phone line. Fraudulent telemarketers are more than just a nuisance; they're criminals. And many scammers target seniors, thinking they'll be easy marks. But if you can let them in to your home by listening to their patter, you can also keep them out.
Follow these tips to protect yourself:
- Never give a telemarketer any information, especially your credit card, bank account, or Social Security number.
- Feel free to end a conversation. If you're uncomfortable, hang up the phone. If you're persistently harassed, call your local police department to have your phone monitored.
- Buy over the phone only from reputable companies you've patronized before. Before you buy anything from an unfamiliar seller, ask that written information be sent to your home.
- Learn to recognize the earmarks of fraud. A caller who pressures you to sign up immediately or before you have all the information, refuses to send written materials, or -- worst of all -- requires that you send money by private courier or wire is likely to be fraudulent. Other clues that something is amiss: vague language, a request for cash or the offer of a no-risk investment with huge returns.
- Know the guidelines legitimate telemarketers must follow. They're required to tell you the name of the company, what they're selling, and that it's a sales call. Under the law, they cannot call before 8 a.m., after 9 p.m., or after being told not to call again.
- Use common sense. If an offer sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Be especially wary of cheap home-improvement offers.
- If you want to stop telemarketers from calling in the first place, add your phone number to the Do Not Call Registry (https://www.donotcall.gov). After 31 days on the list, most telemarketing calls will stop. (Charities, political organizations and phone surveyors are still allowed to call.)
What are the most common forms of telephone fraud?
- A caller says you've won a prize but asks you to send money for shipping and handling, taxes, or some other use. Legitimate prizes require no payment on the part of the winner.
- A caller says you can recover money previously lost to fraud for an up-front fee. Con artists often target those who have been victims in the past, hoping to steal more money from them.
- A caller offers to "fix" your bad credit rating if you pay a sum of money in advance. Your credit record cannot be fixed this way. Remember: If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
National Crime Prevention Council http://www.weprevent.org
For information on securing your home against breakins.
National Fraud Information Center Report http://www.fraud.org
Report swindles to the police or call the center.
To join Triad, check with your local sheriff or AARP or call Triad's national headquarters.
703-836-7827 or 800-424-7827
Do Not Call Registry https://www.donotcall.gov
To place your phone number on the registry, go to the web site or call.
Harteau, Janee, et. al. A Senior's Guide to Personal Safety. Fairview Pr. October 1999: 192 pp.
Center for Problem-Oriented Policing. Responses to the Problem of Burglary of Single-Family Houses. http://www.popcenter.org/problems/problem-burglary-family_p3.htm
Department of Justice. Criminal Victimization in the United States, 2004 Statistical Tables. June 2006. http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/pub/pdf/cvus04.pdf