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Tip: Seniors should beware of home-improvement scams

Beware the helping hand that may be reaching for your wallet. Con artists and fraudsters often target seniors who live alone and have a sizable nest egg. Many scams center on home improvement frauds, in which someone knocks on your door offering services. The intent may be to do a shoddy job at an exorbitant rate or simply to rob the home of easy-to-snatch valuables.

"The financial exploitation of the elderly is rising dramatically, especially with the economy the way it is," says Thomas Cassidy, a former senior investigator with the New York State attorney general's office and currently an associate professor at Stony Brook University's School of Social Welfare. He is also the author of "Elder Care: What to Look For, What to Look Out For."

Cassidy specialized in rooting out elder fraud during his years at the attorney general's office, but recently a potential ripoff hit close to home - literally.

About two months ago, Cassidy received a call from his 84-year-old mother, Betty. "She was telling me there was somebody trying to get her to open the door so he could take measurements." Cassidy told his mother not to let the man in, and to call the police. The man fled.

Cassidy says many homeowners in this situation would not call the cops, which he says is a mistake. "The police officer really put my mother at ease," he says. And the patrol car attracted the attention of neighbors, who became more vigilant. "It was like 'neighborhood watch.' They were all on the alert, looking out for themselves and looking out for her."

The home-improvement scam wouldn't be successful unless there was an underlying need. "Oftentimes, older people live in older homes that weren't made for older people," Cassidy says. "They do need help from people coming into their homes. It's just that they have to have the right people doing it."

The state attorney general's office says to make sure you get a contract for any home improvement job. Before you hire anyone to work on your home, get at least three bids. Always ask to see a copy of the contractor's license, and check the number with the Nassau or Suffolk County Consumer Affairs office for outstanding complaints. Also, make sure the contractors put into writing that they will obtain all permits required by law.

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