Online and in-person scams pose a major threat to seniors – both financially and emotionally. According to a study from the North American Securities Administrators Association, seniors lose an estimated $36.5 billion annually due to financial schemes. About 1 in 18 are faced with potential fraud each year.
Because older adults can fall victim to scammers who might be trying to take advantage of cognitive or other impairments, it’s important to educate your loved ones on some of the most common scams.
Health insurance scams are one of the most prevalent when it comes to seniors. Many times, people will pretend to be a Medicare official or health insurance representative and call seniors to sign up for a benefit. These people will ask seniors for various personal information (such as Social Security number, address and financial information) only to take money without providing any real services.
“Questions about automated phone calls come up frequently at my pharmacy,” said Dr. Justin Marcelino, Pharm.D, RPh. “These calls are designed to mimic legitimate insurance companies. But, if you didn't call them first, don't bother speaking with them. These days, real insurance companies will have their protective clients reach out to their website to sign-up or have the client call first.”
Marcelino, who works for CVS, also states that many times, senior patients will get health insurance discount or savings cards in the mail, but these are actually fake insurance companies that do not offer any actual prescription coverage. Before signing up for any kind of health insurance, seniors should do their research. If you’re shopping in the Health Insurance Marketplace, only do it at healthcare.gov. If you suspect a scam or have questions, do not give a caller any personal information, credit card numbers or bank account data. Call 1-877-382-4357 or go to ftc.gov/complaint to report a potential scam.
With steep prescription prices, seniors can search for less expensive alternatives online. However, this is where many scammers will offer prescription drugs at a discounted price. These can then turn out to be counterfeit drugs that offer no benefit or could harm your loved one’s health.
In addition to fake prescription drugs, seniors can also be susceptible to paying higher prices for a medication that may be cheaper at a different pharmacy. The GoodRX website and app are a great way to review prescription medication prices across multiple local pharmacies.
“The situation I've seen most frequently is when seniors pay much more for a medication than what is actually required,” Marcelino said. “Often, a medication is expensive because it is a brand name or is high on their insurance plans' non-preferred medication list. Many people just assume that what their doctor is prescribing is the only option. However, most medications actually belong to a class of medications that have anywhere from two to five other suitable options.”
If the price of your medication is too high, have your pharmacist contact your doctor to see if there are any alternatives that are more affordable. If you believe your drug is counterfeit, contact the pharmacy where you received the medication. To report emails promoting medical products that you think might be illegal or fake, forward them to email@example.com.
Losing a loved one can be one of the most vulnerable moments in your senior’s life. This is the ideal time that scammers may try to take advantage of your loved one. Funeral scams occur when a person poses as a debt collector and approaches the deceased person’s spouse or relatives for unpaid debts during a funeral. These scammers can also review obituaries and contact relatives over the phone.
Another common scam is for funeral homes to include hidden fees in their costs as well as hike up overall expenses. Seniors and their loved ones have many rights when it comes to funerals and funeral planning, according to the Funeral Rule enforced by the Federal Trade Commission.
It’s common for seniors to seek out anti-aging products to help slow down the physical aging process. However, many products will advertise as being anti-aging but will have no actual ingredients that are targeted for that. Before purchasing any skincare products, check the list of ingredients to see if there are any true anti-aging ingredients.
If you are unsure about the promises a product makes, ask questions. Contact the Better Business Bureau to see if any complaints have been made about a product. Remember, if it sounds too good to be true, promises a “secret formula” or is a “major breakthrough,” it probably isn’t real.
Seniors make twice as many over-the-phone purchases than the national average. So, it’s no wonder that telemarketing fraud is one of the most common scams targeting older adults. People can pose as IRS agents and call about unpaid taxes, threatening stiff penalties or imprisonment if the amount is not paid immediately. These people will also use a Washington, D.C. area code so that they seem like real IRS employees. The IRS will never call to demand immediate payment and usually makes its first attempt to alert you to an issue via mail. Seniors are encouraged never to give out credit or debit card information to someone claiming to be with the IRS. Also, if the caller on the other line makes a mention of getting local law enforcement involved, that is a sure sign they are not from the IRS.
Another telemarketing scam is fake charities asking for donations. This becomes more common after a tragic event occurs such as a natural disaster. Do not let any “charity” rush you into donating. If you have any questions about the organization seeking money, several trustworthy agencies including BBB Wise Giving Alliance, CharityWatch and GuideStar can shed light on the legitimacy of a group. To report a scam, visit FTC.gov/complaint.
Seniors should also be hesitant of “hospital officials” asking for payment for a relative’s bills. If this occurs, first call the relative in question to check their actual health status. Placing a phone call to the billing department at the hospital in question may also shed light on a situation. Bills can be paid at the hospital itself, so seniors should avoid paying over the phone in the event of a sudden and mysterious emergency in the family.
The number of seniors using the internet is on the rise, according to Pew Research Center, making your older loved ones easy targets for scams. Fake anti-virus programs via pop-ups are just one way scammers prey on vulnerable seniors. These fake programs usually charge a substantial amount of money for “protection,” but once they are installed, a virus transmits any personal information to a scammer. TechRadar has compiled a list of trustworthy antivirus software.
Scammers who “phish” will use fraudulent email addresses to ask seniors to update personal information such as credit card accounts and Social Security numbers. Some emails will even request tax refund information. If you are unsure about where an email originated or are uncomfortable providing the information it requests, contact the company or organization in the email. After confirming that the email is fake, forward it to firstname.lastname@example.org. Because victims of phishing can become victims of identity theft, it is recommended seniors reach out to www.identitytheft.gov to get a recovery plan.
Seniors who are retired are generally assumed to have a nice nest egg in their bank accounts or retirement funds, leaving them susceptible to scammers. In some cases, individuals will pretend to be financial advisers to try to gain access to a senior’s savings and retirement funds.
Unsolicited offers should raise a red flag, especially if they are sent through email. Any sort of investment or retirement fund should be done in person with a licensed financial planner. Seniors should also be wary of advisers who overly pressure them to invest or make exaggerated claims, such as offering an unbelievable deal. To find out if a financial adviser or company is legitimate, visit www.sec.gov.
For seniors who own property, receiving and paying their annual property reassessment can become a norm. Fraudsters have been known to send a letter to a residence on official-looking stationary to ask the resident to pay up. If a senior is unsure if the request is real, he or she can contact the local assessor’s office or state attorney general.
Seniors who have equity in their home are at risk of reverse mortgage scams. The FBI and U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Office have seen the number of fraud cases skyrocket in recent years, preying on older adults by offering free homes, investment opportunities and foreclosure or refinance assistance. If you are unsure about whether your reverse mortgage is legitimate, ensure it is insured by the Federal Housing Authority. To file a complaint against a scammer, visit www.hud.gov or call 1-800-347-3735.
Living in a senior living community can eliminate any threats of mortgage scams.
Winning the lottery can have seniors dreaming big - new cars, vacations, boats, etc. But schemers have been known to use the lottery as a facade to get seniors to pay a fee or tax to access the lottery winnings. Scammers will go so far as sending a fake check in the mail. As rare as winning the lottery is, a true win will not require fees to receive the winning sum.
Senior scams cover a wide range of areas. From mortgages and retirement investment to health care and funeral debts, seniors should be vigilant in any aspect where specific financial information is requested. By being aware of the most common scams, seniors can be knowledgeable and prepared when coming face to face with a fraud.
The FTC offers an updated list of recent scams and alerts by topic or most recent. See the complete list and sign up for Scam Alerts by clicking here.
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