Tips to Avoid Scams That Target Seniors

Here’s what you need to know to protect yourself and your loved ones from the most prevalent scams.

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by NEA Member Benefits

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Swindlers are always looking for a new angle, and it seems like new scams are popping up every day. Seniors are prime targets for many reasons, including their higher-than-average credit scores, sizable nest eggs and their often trusting nature.

On its website, the FBI specifically warns seniors that they are prime targets for scammers. People who grew up in the 1950s or earlier, the FBI says, “were generally raised to be polite and trusting” and so are less likely to hang up on an unsolicited phone call—and therefore potentially easier to take advantage of.

Here’s what you need to know to protect yourself and your loved ones from the most prevalent scams.

Beware Affordable Care Act and Medicare scams

One of the latest scams involves an official-looking letter from the IRS saying you owe them money under the Affordable Care Act. This scam, which exploits potential confusion resulting from the ACA reporting requirements and penalties, targets seniors in particular.

“The thing is, if you are on Medicare, you shouldn’t even be getting anything about ACA,” says Vanessa Sink, public affairs manager at the National Council on Aging. All suspect notices should be verified with the IRS.

The ACA swindle is just one of the new scams described in an early January blog by NCOA. Another one is targeted specifically at Medicare recipients. A flier or postcard tells you that you can get a free back brace or knee brace under Medicare—just send your Medicare number and they’ll send you the brace.

“Sometimes they actually send the device,” Sink says. “People don’t even know they’ve been scammed because they get something in return.”

In the meantime, however, the scammers have your Medicare number—which is still the same as your Social Security number—and can use it for anything from filing false Medicare claims to other identity theft scams.

Stay on high alert for these top scams

Healthcare in general is a major category for senior scams. A particularly nasty one is counterfeit prescription drugs sold online. Not only does the victim not get medicine they may need, the product they receive may be harmful. Only purchase prescription drugs from vetted sources.

Besides the new scams in the January blog, NCOA lists several classic types of scams on its website. While difficult to think about, it’s important to keep the following scenarios in mind so you can identify trouble before you or a loved one becomes a victim:

  • Funeral and cemetery scams. Scammers read obituaries and show up at funerals telling relatives the deceased owed them money. In another scenario, an unscrupulous funeral homes could pile on extra charges to grieving survivors, such as telling them an expensive display casket is necessary for cremation, even though a cardboard casket will serve.
  • Fraudulent anti-aging products. Fake Botox, for instance, can be particularly dangerous if it is made from the real root ingredient, botulism neurotoxin, a highly toxic substance.
  • Telemarketing/phone/mass mailing scams. There is some truth to the conventional wisdom that seniors have more time and interest in talking on the phone, making them susceptible to ploys like a “pigeon drop” offering to share a windfall if the mark makes a “good faith” payment in advance. Another common ploy is a fake charity solicitation, especially after a natural disaster. Also, the NCOA blog in January said there has been a spike in mass mailings telling people they have won prize money and will receive it after paying a small “processing fee.”
  • Internet fraud. Older people, not as adept with computers, may be more susceptible to the widespread fraud on the Internet, such as the pop-up offer for anti-virus protection that is actually a virus or malware that can steal your data.
  • Investment schemes. These range from a Bernie Madoff type of pyramid scheme to the fabled Nigerian prince looking for a partner to help him claim his inheritance.
  • Homeowner/reverse mortgage scams. These range from a fake County Assessor letter offering to help reduce the assessment on a home and lower the tax burden, to various parties—whether relatives or building contractors—pressuring seniors to get a reverse mortgage and provide access to the equity in their homes.
  • Miscellaneous phone scams. There are particularly pernicious scams that appeal to open-hearted seniors. Someone on a fuzzy phone connection will pose as a grandchild, asking for a relatively small sum of money to help out in a crisis. And there is the “fake love scam” for lonely hearts, when a senior is tricked into providing gifts, inheritances of even marriage in exchange for affection.

How to respond if you think you’re being scammed

NCOA recommends that you never respond to solicitations for Medicare supplies or services and that you provide your Medicare number only to health providers at the time you are seeking services. Also, you should monitor your Medicare claims either online or by requesting paper notices and, after checking with your healthcare providers, report any claims you don’t recognize to Medicare.

Never give out personal or financial information over the phone. Don’t respond to email requests for money or information and respond to unsolicited mail requests only after checking the bona fides of the organization.

In general, the best protection is to avoid giving sensitive financial data to anyone you don’t know or haven’t vetted. This is especially true of those who, solicited or unsolicited, appear at your door. Law enforcement officials in fact recommend not opening the door to any stranger. A common door-to-door scam is offering services—tree trimming, driveway sealing, and so on—because they are in the neighborhood working for your neighbor. This is often a ploy to gain entry or to distract while an accomplice searches the house for valuables. Put them off by saying, through the closed door, “We don’t open the door to strangers.” If someone becomes aggressive, call 911 immediately.

Even when someone offering financial services makes an appointment to see you at home, do not accept their initial offer. “Never just sign anything,” NCOA’s Sink says. “And don’t give them information about yourself.” Take time to think about it and always consult with someone you trust, she recommends—if not family members, then a close friend, pastor or other reliable source.

It’s OK to report it!

Sometimes seniors are reluctant to report a scam for fear relatives will think they are no longer competent to handle their own affairs. If you feel you have been scammed or someone is trying to swindle you, don’t be afraid or embarrassed to talk about it with someone you trust, NCOA recommends. Keep the phone numbers and resources you can turn to handy, including the local police, your bank, and Adult Protective Services. (To obtain the contact information for Adult Protective Services in your area, call the Eldercare Locator, a government sponsored national resource line, at 800-677-1116, or visit their website at eldercare.gov.)