Sterling Heights library promotes financial wellness

Scam protection and other topics discussed

By: Andy Kozlowski | Sterling Heights Sentry | Published April 21, 2021

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STERLING HEIGHTS — The Sterling Heights Public Library recently hosted events raising awareness for smart fiscal practices in recognition of April as Financial Wellness Month.

The initiative is headed by the Michigan Financial Wellness Network, a group that helps people manage their wealth. Libraries across the state participate.

At the Sterling Heights library, located at 40255 Dodge Park Road, there were four events on financial awareness, including an April 13 presentation on the latest scams and the best ways to protect yourself against them.

Other events included an April 14 talk on devising a spending plan, and two events on April 15 — one teaching kids about finances and another sharing tips on building and protecting one’s credit.

Residents registered for each of the events through www.shpl.net. Library officials see these programs as consistent with the library’s larger goal of serving the community in all aspects of life, beyond the traditional role of lending books and assisting with research.

The scam protection program was organized by librarians Stephanie Fair and Amanda Itria.

“One in 10 adults fall victim to scams every year,” Fair said in an email. She rattled off some of the most common scams today: online dating scams, imposter scams, fake check scams, and family emergency scams or “grandparent scams,” where the con artist poses as a distant relative in distress.

“And, unfortunately, fraudsters are exploiting the opportunity with the pandemic and COVID-19 and stimulus packages,” she added.

Fair said that dating scams were the No. 1 money-making scam in 2020. Scammers create fake profiles on dating websites, striking up relationships to build trust. But usually, they never meet the intended victim — instead, they string them along with cover-up stories, while requesting money for plane tickets, medical expenses and gift cards.

Social Security scams were another trend last year, with the Social Security Administration receiving more than 718,000 reports in 2020. Fair explained that imposters posing as officials with the SSA call the victim and claim their Social Security number is linked to a crime. They then request sensitive information, sometimes threatening to arrest the victim if they don’t comply.

“The SSA will never call you with matters over the phone requiring you to give them your Social Security number,” Fair said.

The latest trend takes advantage of the pandemic. The Federal Trade Commission reported last month that Americans have lost more than $382 million to scams related to COVID-19. The con artist persuades victims with fake treatments, fake charities, ads for fake test kits, and emails claiming to be from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. There are also scams related to stimulus checks where the imposter claims to be from the IRS and demands bank account or other financial information — information the actual IRS would not request over the phone.

“Scammers pretend to be from an organization you know, such as the IRS, Medicare or Amazon. They may use your name, email address or phone number, and may even be calling from a local area code,” Fair said. “Scammers say there’s a problem or a prize. Scammers pressure you to act immediately. This is so that you are so worried that you don’t use common sense.”

One of the biggest red flags is when they ask you to pay in a very specific way, such as via gift card or money transfer. No matter how urgent the situation might seem, the best course of action is to get a second opinion. Check with family members and friends to see if they got similar messages, and do not share personal information over the phone or in an email with someone you don’t know.

If you think you have encountered a scam, Fair encourages you to report it online at the Federal Trade Commission’s website: https://reportfraud.ftc.gov. This will alert law enforcement and provide an action plan for what to do next.

Nancy Latham, a financial and homeownership instructor for the Michigan State University Extension, helmed another two programs — one on developing a spending plan, and another for building and protecting one’s credit. She shared some of her advice in an email.

For the spending plan, she said it’s important to first grasp what you’re actually spending each month by tracking your expenses by type, be it food, travel, clothing, paper products and so on.

“A monthly expense such as a utility bill can be averaged based on the cost for 12 months. Put the same amount aside each month,” Latham said.

Then make a point to review those expenses each week or month and carefully consider what could be reduced or eliminated. Get in the habit of using coupons and looking at paper sales before you shop, and craft a shopping list and stick to it. Do-it-yourself projects can save money where possible. In the end, a disciplined spending plan can steadily save money for retirement, buying a home or vehicle, and other big expenses, she said.

On building and protecting one’s credit, Latham said late payments that lower one’s score and identity theft are among the most common issues one might face. She said one can be proactive by checking their credit report routinely for irregularities, as well as making payments on credit cards and other expenses on time.  

Teaching kids how to save up and spend wisely was another concept that the events covered during Financial Wellness Month, the idea being it’s never too early to start learning this.

“Parents can discuss earning, saving and spending money even at a young age,” librarian Barbara Petrowski said in an email. “You can talk about whether it is easy or hard to earn money, and what things might or might not be important to spend money on. When shopping with your children, try to use cash for purchases if possible, because it is easier for them to see and understand that once the money is gone, it’s gone. The concept of credit and debit cards and checks is a little more difficult for children to understand.”

She said that the library program also discussed the value of spending money on others and not just oneself. Helping kids to appreciate the value of money will help shape smart habits. Petrowski suggested some ways to accomplish this.

“Children love to pretend they are adults,” she said. “They can be given ‘jobs’ helping out around the house. Young children can help sort and fold laundry, match socks, etc. That will not only be a job for them, but will also help their dexterity and cognitive skills.

“Let your child do these ‘jobs’ to earn money, which they can spend or save. Teach them that they don’t have to do one or the other: They can spend some money, but they should save some, too. Letting them earn their own money to buy something also gives them a sense of pride and accomplishment.”

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