Consumer Alert: Diligence and Education Thwart Scams

Bernie Madoff-like ponzi frauds, foreign lottery winnings ploys and work-at-home check cashing schemes. These are just a few of the scams that have made headlines over the past year. Scams and fraudulent business practices that intend to swindle can impact anyone including the affluent and highly educated, as well as the non-native speaking, the poor and the elderly. In difficult economic times, scammers continually search for new ways to deceive. Recently publicized scams include individuals posing as bank officials offering to refinance mortgages or to confirm account numbers via the Internet or over the phone.

Anyone with a phone, mail box, Internet access or front door can be a possible scam target. Scammers prey on the weakness of human nature or a specific demographic group. They understand that most people want a “great deal” or desire to be wealthier and more beautiful. Scams are often targeted to individuals with unique backgrounds and special needs, including seniors.

“Scam artists steal more than money for a product or service. They steal a senior’s dignity, trust and self esteem,” said Allen Hager, CEO and founder of Right at Home, a national provider of in-home care with 160 locations in 41 states. “Education and awareness are key components of stopping scams and protecting our loved ones.”

It has been the experience of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) that the elderly are targeted for fraud for several reasons:

  • Seniors grew up in an era in which your word was your bond and a handshake closed a deal. They assume that if someone seems nice, they must be trustworthy.
  • These individuals were raised to be polite, especially if they are showing the time to care. Many scammers prey on their loneliness and desire for conversation.
  • Seniors have money to spend. Many seniors have retirement savings, own their home and have an excellent credit rating.
  • As seniors strive for independence, they have an increased need for goods and services to maintain their homes. They make purchase decisions without the input of others.
  • Mental or physical impairments are used by perpetrators to confuse the elderly. Scammers can give one price, but demand more money after the service is completed, claiming the senior did not clearly hear or completely understand the price.
  • Seniors are least likely to report a fraud since they are afraid that relatives will doubt their mental competency. They fear that they will seem foolish since they fell for a fraud.

Most common senior scams according to FBI:

  • Health Insurance (“rolling lab” schemes, medical equipment fraud, Medicare fraud)
  • Counterfeit Prescription Drugs (“Special deals” or on-line purchases)
  • Funeral and Cemetery Fraud (contracts, refund terms, embalming rules)
  • Telemarketing (“get rich quick” schemes, travel offers, often involve prizes)
  • Anti-aging Products (vitamins, creams, “secret” formulas, “breakthroughs”)
  • Investment Schemes (advance-fee, Nigerian letter, Prime bank notes) (non-delivery of items, credit/debit card fraud)
  • Charitable Fraud (non-existent charity)

Things to remember to stop scamming by Stopseniorscams.org:

  1. If an offer sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
  2. When it comes to a “now or never” opportunity, choose “never.”
  3. Keep account numbers, codes and passwords private. Be wary of giving any information out to anyone over the phone unless you initiated the call.
  4. Shred bills, junk mail and receipts before discarding them.
  5. Don’t be afraid to report your experiences. If you feel uncomfortable, tell someone.

If you have any questions regarding a company, contact your local Better Business Bureau (BBB) at http://www.bbb.org to check its service or complaint record. To find out your legal rights if you or a family member has been a victim of a fraud, contact the Consumer Protection Division of your state Office of the Attorney General. A number of federal and state laws are designed to protect consumers from unethical business practices including the Federal Trade Commission or the Postal Inspector.

If an individual has been victimized once, he or she becomes a more likely target for additional scams. You can take precautions to avoid a second incident, including changing the senior’s phone number and making it unlisted. The telephone company can also block all outgoing 900 numbers. In addition, a family member, caregiver or friend can assist seniors with sorting mail and identifying possible scams.

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