Avoiding Senior Scams

By Shannon Finley,

Financial scams targeting seniors, according to the National Council on Aging, have become “the crime of the 21st century.” Regardless of whether a senior is wealthy or low-income, scams have become prevalent because they are not only difficult to prosecute, but they often go unreported, because the victims do not want to admit that they were scammed.

Scams can come in many forms. Many of us have received the letter or email from the Nigerian prince looking for a partner to claim his inheritance, or from the con artist that has won the lottery and is willing to split the proceeds with you if you help him or her make a payment to unlock the winnings.

Other scams which specifically target the senior population include Medicare/health insurance scams, telemarketing scams, internet fraud, counterfeit prescription drugs, funeral and cemetery scams, fraudulent anti-aging products, investment schemes and the “grandparent” scam.

In the Medicare scam, the con artist will pose as a Medicare representative in order to get seniors to provide their personal information. Medicare scams may take place over the phone, or may take the form of a pop-up (temporary) clinic which will collect personal information in order to bill Medicare and pocket the money.

Seniors are twice as likely to make a purchase from telemarketers as other age groups. Scammers will use telemarketing offers in order to convince a senior to purchase a product or service over the phone. Since there is no paper trail with these transactions, they are difficult to trace. Once victims fall for one of these scams, their contact information is passed to other scammers who are looking for easy targets.

Internet fraud can take many forms, from the pop-up browser window which claims that you must purchase an anti-virus scanning software to ads for discounted designer sunglasses. Once a victim clicks on the link or makes the purchase, a virus will open up whatever personal information is stored on the computer. Another popular form of internet fraud is the email phishing scheme which claims that a legitimate company that you have a relationship with, like iTunes or a bank, would like you to verify your personal information in order to unlock your account.

According to the FDA, counterfeit prescription drug scams are growing in popularity. Both the prescription scam as well as the fraudulent anti-aging scam can either involve paying for a medication that will help a person’s medical condition or may involve a product that is unsafe to use. Scams involving fraudulent medications and anti-aging products can take a toll on a person’s wallet as well as potentially cause harm to one’s body.

Investment schemes target people who are looking to safeguard their cash for the future or who are looking for a guaranteed return on their investment. One of the most well known investment schemes in modern history was made famous by investment advisor Bernie Madoff, who promised investors large, steady returns on their investments.

Funeral scams take advantage of someone after the loss of a loved one. They are probably one of the oldest scams. In fact, in 1984, the Federal Trade Commission outlined rules for funeral homes to follow in order to provide consumers protection from disreputable funeral homes. Unscrupulous funeral homes seek to capitalize on family members who are unfamiliar with the costs of services as well as charging unnecessary items to the final bill. Other scammers may also read obituaries or attend funeral services to seek out grieving family members in an attempt to extort money to settle fake debts.

One of the more crafty schemes used to prey on seniors is known as the “grandparent” scam. Through the grandparent scam, callers will reach out to an older person and will start the call with a generic, but familiar, line such as “Hi Grandma, do you know who this is?” When the “grandparent” guesses, the scammers establish an identity without needing to do any research on their prey. Once they establish their identity and begin the conversation, they will ask for money to resolve a financial problem like overdue rent or car repairs, which can be paid by money gram or Western Union which do not always require identification in order to collect. The conversation will usually end with a plea to not tell the grandchild’s parents.

While seniors are often targeted for scams, everyone should take caution. Below are a few tips to protect yourself from money scams:

  1. Don’t isolate yourself. Stay involved. People who are often alone are more likely to be at risk of becoming a victim.
  2. When solicited over the phone or in person, tell the solicitor that you never buy or give to anyone that calls or visits unannounced. Have them send you something in writing that you can review.
  3. Shred receipts that might contain your credit card number.
  4. Sign up for do-not call lists and take yourself off of mailing lists.
  5. Use direct deposit for your benefit checks to prevent them from being stolen from your mailbox.
  6. Never give your bank account, credit card, Social Security, Medicare or other personal information over the phone unless you initiate the call.
  7. Be skeptical of unsolicited offers. Take the time to do your research before making a purchase.