Aging Matters: Scams that target the elderly

Citing a 2000 report by the Federal Trade Commission, state Sen. Bob McCaslin successfully introduced a 2009 bill that extends the statute of limitations for fraud against the elderly from three years to six. The FTC report states that of the $40 billion stolen annually through fraud, seven of 10 instances target senior citizens. I’ll focus on three types of fraud, of which two rely on the telephone.

At the FTC site, you can read appalling details of 13 telemarketing scams, perpetrated primarily against elderly people, culminating in a 2008 FTC action called Tele-PHONY. For example, one Montreal organization phoned U.S. consumers to offer them a discount prescription drug package costing $389, and told consumers they’d lose their Medicare benefits if they didn’t sign up.

Others prey on people fearful about their investments. Several states have passed laws targeting scams such as free-lunch seminars that promote unsuitable investments supposedly safer than stocks. The Wall Street Journal reports that between 2002 and 2008 the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, or Finra, brought 3,211 enforcement actions against financial firms and sales people for violations against seniors, nearly twice as many than for violations against other groups.

Alarmingly, some callers already have your bank information. They’re trying to get you to say “yes” or “okay” to something so they can claim that you authorized charges. FTC guidance about wise telephone practices includes:

Find out who’s calling and why. If they won’t tell you who’s selling what, end the call.

What’s their hurry? The haste is a clue that the caller is not legitimate.

Why am I confirming my account number? Don’t ever give it out unless it’s clear who the caller is and why they’d need it.

Remember to call the Do Not Call registry at 1-888-382-1222 from the number (land line or cell) you want to register.

Finally, a friend’s mother was a victim of a third type of scam that was new to me. She was phoned by someone who called her “Grandma,” with a story about needing money and having lost his wallet. She wired the requested funds. Once the family reported the incident, they were advised by law enforcement to have a secret password that only family members would know.

I suggest one overarching guideline: Never make financial arrangements on the phone if you did not initiate the call, and discuss these matters with elderly friends and relatives.