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Scams and seniors

Lynette Veit: Greene Publishing, Inc.

It's a sad reality that senior citizens are frequently targeted by scam artists, who perceive the elderly as easy marks.

In many cases, older Americans are more vulnerable, whether because of diminished mental or physical capacities, or because of loneliness or isolation, or perhaps because they grew up in a more trusting generation.

For seniors and their loved ones who look after/take care of them, the National Council on Aging (NCOA) has put together a list of the Top 10 Scams Targeting Seniors. If you are an older American, or care for an elderly parent or relative, here are some of the scams you should be looking out for.

Healthcare/MedicareHealth Insurance Fraud: Every U.S. citizen or permanent resident of age 65 qualifies for Medicare, so there is rarely any need for a scam artist to research what private health insurance company an older person has in order to scam him or her out of some money.

Counterfeit Prescription Drugs:  Counterfeit drug scams operate on the internet where seniors increasingly go to find better prices on specialized medication. This scam is growing in popularity – since 2000, the FDA has investigated an average of 20 such cases per year, up from five a year in the 1990s.

Funeral and Cemetery Scams: The FBI warns about two types of funeral and cemetery fraud perpetrated on seniors. In the first type, scam artists read obituaries and then call or attend the funeral service of a complete stranger to take advantage of the grieving widow or widower, claiming the deceased had an outstanding debt with them. In the second type, unscrupulous funeral homes themselves are the culprits, relying on family members' unfamiliarity with the considerable cost of funeral services to add unnecessary charges to the bill.

Fraudulent Anti-Aging Products: There is a lot of money to be made in the anti-aging industry, whether it is bogus homeopathic remedies that do absolutely nothing, or fake botox, like the case in Arizona that generated $1.5 million for the scammers before they were caught. Expensive fake products not only drain resources, but also a fake product that comes from a “bad batch” or contains some kind of harmful contaminant can have health consequences.

Telemarketing: Perhaps the most common scheme is when scammers use fake telemarketing calls, selling non-existent products. With no face-to-face interaction and no paper trail, these scams are incredibly hard to trace, and once a successful “deal” has been made, the buyer's name is then shared with similar schemers looking for easy targets, sometimes leading to the same person being defrauded repeatedly.

Internet Fraud: Internet scams are everywhere on the web. Pop-up browser windows that look like virus scanning software will trick victims into either downloading a fake expensive anti-virus program, or even worse, an actual virus that will allow the scammer to steal personal and financial information on the victim's computer.

Investment Schemes: From pyramid schemes like Bernie Madoff's, to the “Nigerian Prince” looking for a “partner” to help him claim inheritance money, to financial schemes or products so complex even many economists can't understand them, fraudulent investment schemes have long been a successful way for scammers to swindle older people.

Homeowner/Reverse Mortgage Scams:  Scammers have come up with schemes involving fraudulent reverse mortgages to take advantage of the fact that many older people own their own homes. For trusted information about real reverse mortgages and the consumer protections that are in place, visit www.ncoa.org/independence-dignity and www.homequityadvisor.org.

Sweepstakes and Lottery Scams: The line always goes something like this -  the victim has won a big prize, a lottery or a sweepstakes of some kind, but he or she needs to make some sort of payment to “unlock” or “release” the prize money. Scammers will often mail an authentic-looking check for the “prize money” for the victims to deposit in their accounts, while the scammers collect the money for the so-called “fees” and “taxes.” Naturally, it's the scammers themselves who will quickly pocket those “fees” and “taxes,” and by the time the phony check bounces and the “prize money” disappears from the victim's account, the scammers have disappeared as well.

The Grandparent Scam: Easily one of the most despicable scams, because of the emotional turmoil it causes the victims, this one has proven effective time and time again, which is why it is so popular with thieves. Scammers call an older person and pretend to be one of their grandchildren; usually the scammers have done some research on the victim ahead of time and know enough about that person's family to pass themselves off as a grandchild. How does it work? Usually when the victim answers the phone, the caller says something along the lines of “Hi, Grandma, do you know who this is?” and the unsuspecting grandparent guesses the name of whichever grandchild the caller sounds most like.  The scammer now has a foot in the door and has established a fake identity. Once “in,” the fake grandchild usually pleads for money to solve some sort of unexpected financial problem, legal emergency or other serious trouble. The grandchild usually asked that the money be sent via Western Union or MoneyGram, which do not always require identification to collect.

To avoid many of these scams and protect yourself or your loved one:

  • Be aware that you are at risk from strangers, as well as from persons closest to you. Stay alert.
  • Do not isolate yourself. Stay involved with friends, family, church and community activities.
  • Always tell salespeople who come to your door: “Sorry, I never buy from (or give to) anyone who visits me unannounced.” If you're interested in their product, you can have them leave you a brochure or some information in writing. If you're not interested or if they persist, give them a brisk “Sorry, I'm not interested,” and close the door. Do not worry about seeming rude.
  • If you get a sales call, give the caller a brisk “Sorry, I don't do business over the phone,” and hang up.
  • Shred all your receipts that contain your credit card number. Don't just wad them up and toss them in the trash. Scammers will go trash picking and dumpster diving looking for such pieces of information.
  • Sign up for the “Do Not Call” list to cut down on telemarketing calls and get yourself off multiple mailing lists.  You can sign up at www.donotcall.gov or call (888) 382-1222.
  • Use direct deposit for benefit checks to prevent these checks from being stolen from your mailbox.
  • Never give your credit card, banking, Social Security, Medicare, or other identification numbers or personal information over the phone, unless you are the one making the call.
  • Be skeptical of all unrequested offers and thoroughly do your research if you are seeking any type of services, and always be sure to get references.

To report fraud and scams in Florida, call (800) 378-0445.

Greene Publishing, Inc. regularly runs Scam Alerts in the paper to warn readers about the latest tricks fraudsters have up their sleeves.  If you have been victimized by a scam or know of one that is making the rounds among your friends and neighbors, contact Greene Publishing, Inc. at (850) 973-4141. We'll run a Scam Alert about it to get the information out to our readers.

Remember, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is – have a safe and happy 2018.

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