Scams and fraud are unfortunately commonplace. Senior citizens have become a more favorable target for people looking to make some quick money in a less that honest manner, because seniors will usually have retirement savings. However, that doesn’t mean that you have to become a victim. A well-educated consumer can learn to recognize when an offer looks too good to be true or when it comes from an untrustworthy source. I’m going to guide your through identifying various scams and fraud as well as what to do if you or someone you know becomes a victim.
- The USC Davis School of Gerontology (http://www.usc.edu/projects/wilberlab/resourcefiles/WHIA%202015-%20Fraud%20&%20financial%20abuse-%20Risk%20factors,%20victims,%20&%20tactics.pdf) shows seniors losing $50 billion annually to elder financial abuse and fraud.
- A report from the Financial Industry Regulatory Agency (https://www.saveandinvest.org/file/document/non-traditional-costs-financial-fraud-survey-findingspdf) also states that there are high non-financial costs to senior fraud including stress, anxiety, loss of personal confidence, and depression.
- Approximately 5% of adults are victims of identity theft according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics (https://www.justice.gov/usao/priority-areas/financial-fraud/identity-theft).
Medicare scams – These usually come in the form of a phone call offering a free or reduced service or medical device in exchange for your Medicare number. To learn more about this particular type of fraud, visit https://www.stopmedicarefraud.gov/preventfraud/scams-identity-theft/.
IRS scams – These scammers use our natural fear of the IRS to gain access to our funds. The IRS does not ask for payment via unsolicited telephone calls or emails. If you think you may owe money, you can call them directly at 1-800-829-1040 to confirm. You can also report attempted IRS scams directly to the IRS. Visit their website at https://www.irs.gov/uac/Report-Phishing to learn how.
Heartstring scams – These scams are usually a plea for help (in the form of money). They may claim that your grandchild is in trouble and needs funds or that a recently deceased family member has unpaid debts. They also befriend vulnerable individuals and then ask for financial assistance as a friend. Another common heartstring scam usually claims that the scammer has recently lost all of their money due to an unexpected disaster. To learn more, visit https://www.onguardonline.gov/articles/0002-common-online-scams.
Windfall scams – Windfall scams usually offer something that is just too good to be true such as a lottery winning, inheritance, or a job that pays a little too well. They generally ask for a fee in exchange. You should never have to pay money to receive money. To learn more about these types of scams, visit the RTN Federal Credit Union at http://resourcecenter.cuna.org/19771/article/3979/html.
Home improvement scams – Be wary of unsolicited offers for home improvement work. Not all companies are created equal, and many may do shoddy work, overcharge, or not honor their agreements. This can result in a huge expense that often includes having the work redone by a reputable company. To learn more about this and other types of fraud, as well as how to protect yourself, visit the American Bar Association at http://www.americanbar.org/newsletter/publications/gp_solo_magazine_home/gp_solo_magazine_index/scamstargetelderly.html.
Medical device scams – Telephone calls stating that a medical device has been purchased and needs to be claimed are almost always false. They are usually trying to extract a large “monitoring” fee from the consumer. To learn more, visit http://www.nbcwashington.com/news/local/wsp-gonzalez-medical-device-scam-pkg_Washington-dc-289347351.html
Financial exploitation by trusted individuals or loved ones – This is one of the most unfortunate and heartbreaking, but common, types of fraud. Family members, doctors, and even clergy will use a power of attorney, shared bank accounts or other ways to access funds for themselves that a senior needs in order to survive. If you feel that you are a victim of this type of fraud, reach out to your local authorities for help. To learn more, visit the National Adult Protective Services association at http://www.napsa-now.org/policy-advocacy/exploitation/. There is help.
Computer virus based scams – Many scammers utilize viruses to access your email, steal private information or to send official looking notices demanding payments. Pop-ups suggesting that you owe a fee to an official organization or that your anti-virus software needs to be updated are common.
To read more about common and less common scams, visit the following websites:
- CBS News – http://www.cbsnews.com/news/5-common-phone-scams-targeting-seniors/
- The Federal Bureau of Investigation – https://www.fbi.gov/scams-safety/fraud/seniors
- Scam Busters – http://www.scambusters.org/senior_scam.html
- The National Council on Aging – https://www.ncoa.org/economic-security/money-management/scams-security/top-10-scams-targeting-seniors/
- Bankrate – http://www.bankrate.com/finance/retirement/fraud-5-scams-aimed-at-the-elderly-1.aspx
- Nolo – http://www.nolo.com/legal-encyclopedia/elder-abuse-financial-scams-against-29822.html
How seniors can protect themselves
Do not provide personal or payment information over the telephone. Personal information includes your name, social security number, date of birth, address, and Medicare number. If you must give the information, then verify that the company is legitimate and then call them directly at their publically listed telephone number before giving your information. Do not give your information out when you receive unsolicited calls. They may not be from the company or organization that they claim they are. Simply state that you will get the information and call them back. Do not call them back at a number that they provide. Get the real one from a directory! To learn more, visit http://www.ag.state.mn.us/consumer/publications/VoicePhishing.asp.
Don’t trust the caller ID. Scammers have learned how to manipulate the system to make it look like calls are coming from a legitimate number. Always call a number directly if you need to do business over the telephone. To learn more, visit https://consumercomplaints.fcc.gov/hc/en-us/articles/202654304-Spoofing-and-Caller-ID.
Call your telephone company and have them block unsolicited robocalls. In some cases, this can also be done online. Visit https://www.nomorobo.com/ to learn how. The rules are different depending on if you are using a landline, mobile device of VoiP. Visit the Consumers Union at http://consumersunion.org/end-robocalls/solutions/ to learn what to do for each type.
Install antivirus protection and a firewall on your computer. If you do get a virus, remember that no official organization is going to collect a debt through a pop-up window on your computer. In the case of software update notices, always make sure that it actually your antivirus software that needs to update when it gives you a notice, and that it is not a virus trying to download onto your computer before you hit the “accept” button! You can always call the official organizations at their direct publically published numbers to confirm if any notices are real, and you can visit your antivirus software’s website directly to see if an additional download is actually needed. If you think that your computer is infected, use a different device to check for this information. Some viruses can lead you to false pages with inaccurate information and bogus telephone numbers that will send you to the scammers instead of the companies you are trying to access. To learn more about antivirus software, visit http://www.pcmag.com/article2/0,2817,2372364,00.asp.
Don’t click that attachment! Do not open attachments in emails if they seem at all suspicious. Attachments can contain viruses. The vast majority of larger companies will require that you go to their website and securely access files. They won’t send attachments via email. To learn more, visit http://www.makeitsecure.org/en/malicious-email-attachments.html.
Be cautious of clicking links. Some links will redirect you to less than reputable websites that are there to collect your information (phishing) or install a virus. To learn more about phishing, visit https://www.microsoft.com/en-us/security/online-privacy/phishing-symptoms.aspx.
Do not give money to get money. Do not reply to sweepstakes or inheritance offers that require you to pay a fee to access the money. If the winnings were truly yours, then they should be able to extract any fees from it without asking you for additional funds. To learn more about sweepstakes scams, visit https://postalinspectors.uspis.gov/radDocs/consumer/sweepstk.htm.
Do not list personal information in obituaries, on social media, or elsewhere. It may seem harmless to list an accurate birthday on Facebook or a maiden name on an obituary, but all of this information is accessible to identity thieves. To learn more, visit http://obituarieshelp.org/articles/avoid_identify_theft_from_obituaries.html.
Keep your personal information safe from theft. Do not keep important information such as account number or passwords in a purse, wallet, or mobile device. To learn more, visit http://www.idtheftcenter.org/Fact-Sheets/fs-104.html.
Do not wire money. Legitimate organizations rarely use wire transfers with consumers. They are primarily the tool of choice for scammers and they offer little protection for the sender. The IRS will never ask you to wire money. To learn more, visit https://www.consumer.gov/articles/1019-money-wiring-scams.
Keep an eye on your bank account and credit report. Watch for transactions and companies that you do not recognize. To get a free copy of your credit report, visit https://www.consumer.ftc.gov/articles/0155-free-credit-reports.
To learn more about protecting yourself from fraud, visit the following websites:
- The Office of Investor Education and Advocacy – https://www.sec.gov/investor/seniors/seniorsguide.pdf
- South Carolina Office on Aging – http://aging.sc.gov/legal/Pages/SeniorFraud.aspx
- The Federal Trade Commission’s National Do Not Call Directory – https://www.donotcall.gov/
- The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau – http://www.consumerfinance.gov/older-americans/
What to do if you become a victim
It can be both embarrassing and frightening to become a victim. There is a sense of a loss of power and hopelessness. That doesn’t have to be the case. There is help. If you have become a victim of fraud, reach out to your local authorities, the credit bureaus, family members, and senior protection organizations. You do not have to face this alone. The AARP has created a list of consumer protection authorities to contact in the case of fraud. Their list can be found at http://www.aarp.org/aarp-foundation/our-work/income/elderwatch/report-fraud/. In addition, Senator Robert P. Casey has compiled a list of numbers to contact in case of elder abuse and fraud. It can be found at https://www.casey.senate.gov/issues/seniors/scams?p=29DBF8C0-925C-451B-BE4D-806711FEDF44.
For more information, visit US News at http://money.usnews.com/money/personal-finance/articles/2015/10/27/how-to-guard-against-common-scams-that-target-seniors.
Do you want to learn more? Visit these recommended sites and learn to protect yourself and your loved ones from fraud.
- The National Crime Prevention Council – http://www.ncpc.org/topics/crime-against-seniors
- Forbes – http://www.forbes.com/sites/sungardas/2014/09/09/what-everyone-should-know-about-financial-fraud-against-the-elderly/#36dde7846437
- Texas Attorney General – https://texasattorneygeneral.gov/seniors/senior-consumers
- CNBC – http://www.cnbc.com/2015/02/17/these-scammers-are-targeting-your-elderly-parents.html
- The Wall Street Journal – http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052702303330204579248292834035108
- New York State Division of Consumer Protection – https://www.dos.ny.gov/consumerprotection/scams/older_adults.html