By Elizabeth L. Wynn
Beware Scams That Prey on Seniors
While it is widely believed to be under-reported, a recent study by MetLife’s Mature Market Institute estimated that seniors lose about $2.6 billion per year as a result of financial abuse. Because most individuals are reluctant to report them, financial scams that target the elderly are considered a “low-risk” crime, and are so widespread they are considered “the crime of the 21st century.” Let’s take a look at three common scams and what we can do to avoid them:
- The Grandparents Scam. Rip off artists will call an unsuspecting elder and say something like, “Hi Grandma, do you know who this is?” The innocent senior will immediately respond with a name, and the scammer has the information needed to try and fake this identity with little effort. The scammer will claim to be in trouble and ask for money to solve an unexpected problem. She may say “I’m stranded on vacation with friends” or “I’ve been hospitalized and need money for medical expenses or to get back home.” The trickster will then ask for money to be wired through Western Union, MoneyGram, or another untraceable method.How to Avoid: Immediately check the story with other relatives, even if the caller says, “Don’t tell Mom!” Also, remember with the Internet, especially social media sites, anyone can find virtually anything about you and your relatives, whether it’s true or not. So, don’t be fooled if a suspicious caller knows specific and personal details about your life and family.
- Social Security or Medicare Scam. With this scam, thieves steal personal information by misrepresenting themselves as Medicare or Social Security agent. The senior receives a call announcing new benefits or the need to send a new identification card. With immediate urgency, the agency needs to update personal information. After this information is obtained from the unsuspecting victim, the thief will then contact the SSA or Medicare and change the victim’s payment routing information to his or her own bank accounts.How to Avoid: ALWAYS be cautious of phone calls or e-mails requesting personal information. Seniors can take a preemptive step by notifying the SSA to block all account changes not made in person at www.socialsecurity.gov/blockaccess.
- Funeral Scams. The FBI warns about two types of cemetery or funeral scams used on seniors. In one method, scammers read obituaries and contact the grieving widow or widower and claim that the deceased owed them money or preordered a gift for the survivor and never paid for it. The second method is perpetrated by disreputable funeral homes to capitalize on a family’s unfamiliarity with the cost of funeral services. The funeral home will add unnecessary charges to the bill and often without permission from the grieving family.How to Avoid: The loss of a close family member is an almost unbearable experience. If you have a close friend or a family member who is a little more removed, it’s probably best to let that person make the funeral arrangements. If someone claims that the deceased owed money to them, ask for a receipt or a signed legal document as proof. Or better yet, tell them to file a claim against the estate.
Take the time to educate yourselves and your senior adult loved ones. Just like the flu virus changes annually prompting the need for a new vaccination, these and other scams will soon be obsolete as we find ways to fight them. And scammers, in turn, will develop new kinds of schemes.
The web has an abundance of information regarding senior fraud. Check out these websites: The National Trade Commission, AARP and the National Consumers League. Remember, the best defense is always a good offense!
Elizabeth Wynn is a member of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys and practices law in Ridgeland. She and her family live in Madison.