by Kathy Danforth / Published December 2014
Timber Pines of Spring Hill is an active, adult community of 3,452 homes. With resident’s ages 55 to 105 and an average age of 77, the community relations committee realized they are an attractive target for an abundance of scams and identity theft. To protect their residents, the committee organized a panel of speakers addressing various aspects of fraud prevention, which also earned Timber Pines recognition as a Trendsetter in the 2014 Communities of Excellence contest.
“Residents have often been scammed by vendors, their computers havebeen hacked, and they have been victims of identity theft,” relates Resident Services Manager Patti Yost. “Residents receive phone calls from people representing themselves as government agencies in an attempt to get social security numbers and credit card numbers. The current scam is a call allegedly from the IRS saying the resident owes money. The caller attempts to scare them and then asks for debit card information, and some residents have, unfortunately, been victimized. One member of our community relations committee was a victim of identity theft and computer attack; she is very passionate about this and spearheaded the committee.”
Extensive planning was required to secure speakers and coordinate their topics, prepare the venue, promote the event, record presentations, procure technical support for the speakers, and provide hospitality. Months of planning culminated in “Combating the Global Rising Tide of Identity Theft, Fraud, Scam, Hacking, and Victimization,” which was held on November 21, 2013. Speakers represented the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, IRS Criminal Investigations, U.S. Postal Investigative Services, Florida Attorney General’s Victim Advocate Program, Hernando County Sheriff’s Fraud Unit, and the banking industry.
Timber Pines coordinated the topics addressed by the speakers so that a variety of aspects of security were presented. “The Homeland Security representative addressed the issue of cybersecurity,” Yost explains. “He stressed the importance of some of the safeguards we may already have been aware of, but have ignored. Secure passwords should be changed often and not shared with anyone. They should not include common words or phrases, or personal information such as a birthdate or phone number that others can gain access to. He cautioned that antivirus software should be kept up to date, and only a secure network should be used when accessing the Internet away from home.”
“The USPS advised checking your credit report annually to catch any unauthorized activity,” Yost relates. “They recommend shredding documents and medical records with personal information, so we’re setting up a shred day to help the residents dispose of those records. They also reminded everyone to have their mail held at the post office, rather than being delivered to the mailbox, when anyone is away from home.”
The Hernando County Sheriff’s fraud unit was on hand to tell residents whom to contact locally with questions and problems. “They basically touched on all the topics with a local perspective,” Yost recalls. “The IRS warned residents not to carry their social security card,” according to Yost. “Your social security number also should never be given out over the phone or Internet.”
“The Florida Attorney General’s office addressed the issue of sales and vendors,” Yost recalls. “One of their main tips was to not respond if a seller applies pressure; if they are pushing for an immediate decision, you should hang up or stop the conversation. That is not how reputable vendors conduct business. Possibly the most important consideration is that if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Nothing is free.”
“The representative from the banking industry provided interesting information,” Yost notes. “In addition to changing your password often, they warned against using the same ID, password, or PIN on everything—a shortcut many of us fall into. And, of course, these should not be shared or stored where others have access.”
“Credit card information can be stolen with ‘readers’ illegally installed at unmonitored locations where you may swipe your card,” Yost shares. “Illegal organizations can then create a duplicate card within hours.”
Yost found this out personally when her husband had three fraudulent charges made within three hours of using his card at a service station. “We were shocked because the charges were made with an actual card that had been reproduced that quickly!”
To minimize this chance of fraud, residents were advised to avoid gas stations right by the freeway and to use cash as much as possible. “When shopping online, use credit rather than debit,” Yost states, “as those cards are more protected. Shopping online is generally risky because you can click on a link and be redirected to another site without your knowledge. Also, once information is entered in the computer it can be stored and retrieved for an unintended purpose. There is no single problem—the risks are spread out,” Yost concludes from the seminar.
Both the morning and the afternoon panel had 300–400 people in attendance and the information fair attracted others to pick up the brochures that were available. “We broadcast the event so people could watch it live on our internal channel,” Yost says. “We also recorded the sessions and have DVDs available to borrow so those who couldn’t attend have the information available. And, with the DVD you are able to stop it and write down information you want to remember.”
“We probably reached many more than the number who physically attended,” Yost estimates. “We had feedback for several months after the event. The committee was eager to make this information available and hopes it will help our residents recognize and avoid deception! We also hope that by sharing this information with other HOA communities in Florida, we can help to protect and prepare many more people across the entire state, not just in Timber Pines.”