Q&A: Cary Johnson, expert on shopping safe this holiday season

JeffCo DA’s Office crime prevention director gives fraud prevention tips for seniors

Ryan Dunn
rdunn@coloradocommunitymedia.com
Posted 12/7/21

Cary Johnson doesn’t want to alarm anyone. He does, however, want to keep older adults safe from identity theft and credit card fraud this holiday season — a time of year when crooks are on high …

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Q&A: Cary Johnson, expert on shopping safe this holiday season

JeffCo DA’s Office crime prevention director gives fraud prevention tips for seniors

Posted

Cary Johnson doesn’t want to alarm anyone. He does, however, want to keep older adults safe from identity theft and credit card fraud this holiday season — a time of year when crooks are on high alert, he said.

Johnson has spent the last 20 years working as a crime prevention specialist — the last 15 of which have been with the First Judicial District Attorney’s office, where Johnson serves as the director of crime prevention.

Each month, Johnson gives a presentation on crime prevention to a group of around 70-75 seniors as part of the JeffCo TRIAD program, which aims to build community between senior community members and the DA’s office.

Johnson said he wants to make sure folks are safe from being victimized by fraudsters, especially this time of year.

“The holidays are supposed to be happy, and (when) someone finds out there’s $5,000 on their credit card, it kind of puts a damper on things,” Johnson said.

Johnson added that he doesn’t want older adults to panic, but does want them aware that they need to be extra cautious when shopping around the holidays.

“I don’t want people to be paranoid, I don’t want them to think there’s a crook under every rock, but I want to heighten vigilance, especially during the holiday season, because crooks really are out there and active at this time,” he said.

To learn more about how older adults can stay safe this holiday season, the Arvada Press sat down with Johnson to find out what threats folks should be on the lookout for and what to do if they find themselves on the receiving end of a scam.

Their conversation has been edited slightly for clarity.

What are the biggest threats that seniors should be aware of when shopping this holiday season?

I think there are a couple of things. First of all, seniors have a target on their backs, there’s no doubt about that. They’re the ones that the ID thieves are really focusing on.

One of the real concerns is older adults wandering around the parking lot with packages, with purses, without a sense of what’s going on around them. Because oftentimes, for crooks, (the parking lot is) the best place for them to hang out.

Probably the number one thing that happens to (older adults) is that they’re just used to giving out their credit card, and these crooks have a little palm skimmer that only takes them one slide to get all the information off a credit card. And so, if they can find some means, some method of handling their credit card for even a short time, they can use this palm skimmer, slide the card through and either make a duplicate card or start using it online.

The most popular places to do that are restaurants, and older adults don’t even think twice about handing their credit card off for 15-20 minutes to a stranger, but sometimes when it’s busiest at the holiday season it can be a clerk that brings their credit card to another check out station because it’s busy where they’re working.

If they get home, find out there are fraudulent charges, but they still have their credit card, that is a sure sign that their card has been skimmed.

What can older adults do to avoid being the victim of fraud or theft?

They’ve got to stop writing checks. All a crook needs is a routing number, their account number once. They buy blank check stock, they make their own checks, they make a fake license, and empty out the older person’s bank account and they think they’re perfectly fine. They need to know that checks are an obsolete financial tool in today’s world.

People should carry a minimum amount of personal financial information with them. I like to see that being a neck wallet hanging around their neck, for pocket wallets it’s critical that they put it in their front pocket, and at most driver’s license, one credit card, one check. I’d like to see them carrying nothing more than that in the financial arena.

How can older adults stay safe going to and from their cars at the mall?

If ladies are going to put their purse in the trunk, they need to do that before they leave home. They cannot arrive in a shopping area, in the parking lot, pop the trunk, bend over, put something in it and shut the trunk because these ID thieves can be in their car in 30 seconds, pop the trunk and they’ve got their purse. It’s definitely critical that they don’t do that in the parking lot.

A few tips:

Park as close to an entrance as they can.

If they’re going to be there after dark, they’ve got to park under lights. Take the time, drive around a little bit longer and find a parking place.

They have got to take note of where they park. They cannot leave the mall loaded down with packages and be wandering around like they’re lost, because that kind of behavior is going to make them easy prey for ID thieves.

When they get in their cars, they need to lock the doors, and I don’t care who comes up saying `Hey I need directions,’ they cannot roll their window down or they’ll reach through and grab the purse and be gone.

What effect do you think that the COVID-19 pandemic has had on holiday shopping?

This is just my opinion, but here’s what I expect; we’ve been shut off for the last two years. Everyone I’ve talked to when I’m going out presenting can’t wait to get to the mall for the holidays. I mean, they want to be back in the groove of things, they want to go out and have a nice lunch and see decorations and hear music.

Consequently, I think (older adults) are going to be out in greater mass than we have seen certainly in two years and I think because they’ve been deprived, the ID thieves are going to be out in greater mass than we’ve seen in two years.

For older adults who shop online, what kinds of things can they do to avoid internet scams?

(Seniors should) make sure they’re going to the actual site of whoever they want to shop from. So, they can’t click on a pop-up, they can’t click on something else that might come via an email.

I strongly encourage the use of a new search engine called DuckDuckGo because it hides your IP address, it encrypts all your activity and it blocks pop-ups, so there’s no chance of going to a site that a crook has set up that is just meant to capture credit card or bank account numbers.

And then they need to be really aware of these emails that come in unannounced, unexpected; `Hey, your Amazon account is overdue,’ or `Hey, we see an anomaly with your account, and we need you to contact us right away.’ Of course, the contact email or phone number will be from a crook, not Amazon. They’ll never get a follow-up from an online order asking for additional information.

What regular habits should folks be in to watch out for fraud?

First of all, they need to be diligent about checking both their bank account - and I encourage doing it online - and their credit card account. They’ve just got to begin doing that at least once a week to check for anomalies.

What steps do you recommend taking if a theft or fraud occurs?

The thing they need to do is cut off all access. If your bank account’s compromised, get that thing closed. Banks don’t like people to close their accounts because it’s a hassle and a bother to them. (Older adults) need to close the account, pure and simple. And they need to remember that they’re the customer asking for a service from the bank.

With their credit card, obviously need to stop the credit card as quickly as possible. The number to call and stop your credit card is on the back on your credit card. I usually encourage people to put the number on the back of their credit card into their smart phone if the credit card goes physically missing.

Every older adult should put a security freeze on with the credit reporting agencies. We’re talking about a population that are not going to put on a lot more credit, if any. So, they need to just lock that thing down and be done with it.

What can folks do after the holidays to check if they were scammed?

They need to be vigilant about checking their statements in January. With all this activity going on, they might not get to them, and of course nobody wants to look at their statement in January because you spent too much money. But they need to make sure they check both banking statement and credit card statements in January.

TRIAD meetings are open to the public and held on the fourth Tuesday of the month at 1:30 at the District Attorney’s office, located at 500 Jefferson County Parkway in Golden.

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