The Latest Schemes Targeting Older Adults

Senior woman worried on the phone

Con artists bilk older adults out of more than $36 billion every year, say experts. Whether it's fake sweepstakes offers, phony charities, or elaborate schemes to tap into a senior's retirement account, criminals know that older adults can be more vulnerable to their trickery.

The crime is so widespread that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently declared it a significant public health problem, urging physicians and other professionals to be aware of red flags that a senior is being scammed. And in April 2018, the Journal of the American Medical Association even noted that losing a lot of money can harm the mental health and shorten the lives of seniors.

The Caring Right at Home online newsletter periodically highlights some of these scams — because knowledge is power, for seniors and caregivers alike. A person who is familiar with a particular scheme is less likely to be victimized. Last year around tax time, income tax scams were rampant (read more in "Warn Senior Friends and Loved Ones About IRS Scams"). Here are more of the latest ones making the rounds, from the clever schemes of con artists to unethical business practices and even one that may come from well-meaning family members.

Medicare card scams

You may have heard that people on Medicare will receive new cards this year. The new cards will have an individual 11-digit identification number that replaces the person's Social Security number, which crooks have been able to use to defraud both Medicare and individuals. Ironically, con artists have been quick to take advantage of this change. Pretending to be from Medicare, they call seniors to demand money or personal information, threatening the elder with the loss of Medicare coverage if they don't comply.

Warn your loved one about this scam and reassure them that they don't have to do anything to get the new card — Medicare will be automatically sending them out between April 2018 and April 2019. The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services says: "Medicare will never call you uninvited and ask you to give us personal or private information to get your new Medicare Number and card." If you receive one of these calls, hang up and call Medicare at 1-800-633-4227.

Tech support scams continue to evolve

Your loved one might receive a call from a crook pretending to be a computer tech or customer support worker. For example, the caller might claim to be from Microsoft, wanting to talk about your loved one's installation of Windows (they don't necessarily know your loved one is running Windows, but the odds are in their favor). Or, a scary pop-up message might appear on your loved one's monitor, claiming their computer is infected with viruses and telling them to call a number right away to have the viruses removed. The scammer might claim to be from your loved one's email provider. There are any number of these scams. See this information from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to learn more.

In a newer variation, the caller claims that you were overcharged for a service and are due a refund. They convince you to grant them access to your computer to "put the money back." Suddenly, oh no, they entered too many digits. "I will be in trouble with my boss if you don't pay me the money!" the caller says, and wants you to wire money, or buy gift cards and tell them the numbers on the cards. The caller also might load a program onto your computer that locks you out and holds it hostage, and you can lose your files. (This is a good reminder to back up valuable files frequently.) These callers can be very threatening and abusive.

"Free trial" schemes

We all love free samples. Companies offer them in hopes that we'll like them and purchase their products or services. But some companies use questionable practices to get us to sign up for a free trial that is anything but free.

Here's how it works: We're offered a free item or trial subscription and all we have to do is pay the postage. We happily pull out our credit card to pay that trifling amount, not even bothering to read the fine print on the agreement, which in fact authorizes the company to send us more products later or continue a service or subscription or membership that we don't want. If we don't scrutinize our credit card statements, we might not even notice it's happening. Make a habit of carefully checking your credit and debit card statements. That way you'll know right away if you're being charged for something you didn't order. If you see charges you didn't agree to, contact the company directly to sort out the situation. If that doesn't work, contact your credit card company to dispute the charge. Ask the credit card company to reverse the charge because you didn't actively order the additional merchandise.

Buying from friends and family

This final item is a little different, but bears mentioning because it is becoming more common and is something families might want to talk about. Maybe you walk into your elderly father's apartment and notice that his bottle of prescription heart medication is as full as it was last week. "Dad, have you been forgetting to take your pills?" Dad responds, "Oh, your cousin Julia said those pills are from Big Pharma and they're bad. She sold me these oils and herbs that I've been taking instead."

Today a lot of people are involved in multilevel marketing companies, selling products such as clothing, cosmetics, jewelry and candles. In some cases, they sell vitamins, supplements, oils and other products that make health claims. The U.S. Food & Drug Administration has cracked down on these claims, but individual sellers may go afoul of the guidelines. Sellers receive training on how to make sales to their friends, families and Facebook friends. While senior loved ones could always be counted on to buy Girl Scout cookies or band candy, they should talk to their doctor before purchasing or consuming products that claim to cure or prevent disease. And sellers make more money if they recruit new dealers, but your loved one should be very cautious about tapping into retirement accounts or otherwise investing in their relative's company. Here's more from the FTC.

Whether it's a hard-core crook or a well-meaning relative, it's important to help your loved one develop some healthy skepticism. As you're sharing information with the folks, explain that you're not trying to scare them, and you want to protect them. If you do feel they are incompetent to manage their money, it may be time to consult an elder care attorney about ways you can help, such as a joint checking account or power of attorney. But if your loved one is sound of mind and just fell for a well-crafted scam (which can happen to people of any age), reassure them that you're not questioning their competence, just trying to spread the word and raise awareness of this growing crime. Encourage them to share the information with their friends. What a sense of empowerment to help prevent someone else from being defrauded!

Elderly grandfather with supportive granddaughter

Keeping seniors scam savvy

Here are some good sources of information to help build awareness of the latest scams so you and your loved one will recognize them:

Right at Home, Inc. is a national organization dedicated to improving the quality of life for those we serve. We fulfill that mission through a dedicated network of locally owned providers of in home care services.