When Oklahoman Madalyn Smith Harmon heard the message on her voice mail, it sounded perfectly normal. “This is Rachel from Card Members Services,” the caller stated. “There is nothing wrong with your credit card account, but we would like to give you the opportunity to reduce your interest rate. Press one if you would like the opportunity.”
It seemed like a good idea. “We get that call so often that I thought I would press one and see what they could do,” Harmon explains. “Long story short, they wanted my credit card number and my checking account number. I said, ‘Are you crazy? This conversation is over.’”
Thankfully Harmon, who is in her sixties, recognized the scam for what it was and avoided trouble. But others aren’t so lucky. According to The True Link Report on Elder Financial Abuse 2015, each year the elderly are defrauded of as much as $36.48 billion. And much of that money is taken through means that are unethical and deceptive but technically legal. This can make it hard to fight fraudsters, and it means seniors need to be especially on their guard against those who would steal their money.
Senior citizens are an especially tempting target for many reasons – they tend to have more ready cash, for one thing. They may be more trusting of strangers, or less likely to think fast on their feet. But even the most astute of people can be taken in by these schemes, which often masquerade as an offer to help someone in need.
For Oklahoma Insurance Commissioner John D. Doak, fighting elder fraud is crucial to the state’s well-being.
“Crooks target seniors because they think they’re an easy target,” Doak says. “The scams have gotten more sophisticated, with crooks using social media and the internet to find out where you live, where you work and who you’re related to. Once they have that information, it’s easier for them to steal your money.”
These scams can happen over the phone, by email or in person. Common tricks include fraudsters claiming to be IRS agents, debt collectors, health care representatives, or even a long-lost child or grandchild in trouble. And with the increasing health needs of an aging population, phony anti-aging products, fake prescription drugs and funeral and cemetery scams are becoming more common.
Clues that you may be the target of a scammer are varied, but they boil down to a few key elements. Fraudsters often claim to be someone you would normally trust, such as a representative of a bank or credit card company. They typically resort to fear tactics, such as threatening you with jail time or high fines unless immediate action is taken. Their goal is simple – to get you off-balance and force you to act fast, before you have time to think.
The best way to avoid being taken in by scammers is to be educated and aware. The Federal Trade Commission’s website recommends several red flags to be on the lookout for. First and foremost, don’t make any assumptions. Just because the caller ID says IRS or the name of your bank, that doesn’t mean it’s accurate. Caller IDs can be faked, and so can email addresses. Trust your gut. If something doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t.
Also, don’t be rushed into making decisions or taking action. Research charities before you decide to donate. Fraudsters will often claim to be doing charity work, especially after a disaster such as a severe storm or a wildfire.
To help fight elder fraud and make the public aware of how to protect themselves from scammers, the Oklahoma Insurance Department is hosting ten free conferences throughout the state. The conferences started in May and will continue through July.
“Our seniors should be protected from scammers,” Doak says. “These Senior Fraud Conferences will teach Oklahomans how to spot the red flags and avoid being a victim.”
Conference topics include Medicare fraud, insurance and funeral trust fraud, investment fraud, banking fraud and current senior scams. Each seminar is free for seniors and includes breakfast. Insurance professionals can attend a conference for four hours of Continuing Education (CE) credit. The cost for CE credit is $30. Those interested in attending can RSVP by registering online at map.oid.ok.gov or calling 800-763-2828.
Tips for protecting yourself
- Be aware that you are at risk from not only strangers,
but those closest to you.
More than 90 percent of all reported elder abuse is committed by the person’s own family members.
- Stay involved and don’t isolate yourself.
Isolation is a large risk factor for elder abuse – limit your risks by staying involved in your community.
- Never buy or give anything to someone who calls or visits unannounced.
While exceptions can be made for situations such as local children selling items door-to-door, a good rule of thumb is to never donate if it requires you to write your credit card information on a form.
- Shred all receipts with your credit card number.
Identity theft is a huge business, and using a paper shredder is one of the best ways to protect yourself.
- Sign up for the Do Not Call List.
Signing up for the National Do Not Call Registry (donotcall.gov) will stop telemarketers from contacting you.
- Use direct deposit for benefit checks.
Using direct deposit for checks ensures they go straight into your bank account and are protected from being stolen from your mailbox.
- Never give credit card, banking, Social Security, Medicare or other personal information over the phone
unless you initiated the call.
Misuse of Medicare dollars is one of the largest scams involving seniors, and your Medicare information should be protected the same way as credit card, banking and Social Security information.
- Be skeptical of all unsolicited offers and do your research.
The best way to avoid scams is to be an informed consumer. Call and shop around before making a purchase and carefully read all contracts and purchasing agreements before signing.
-Information from the National Council on Aging