Have you received phone calls lately from Lithuania? The IRS? Someone claiming that unless you share your social security number right now, the police will be there in five minutes? A couple of years ago I wrote about scams, mainly those perpetrated against seniors. I feel compelled to write again since it’s a topic that continues to have relevance and, in fact, sadly appears to be growing in both scope and audacity in response to technological advances.
One scam that remains prevalent involves healthcare – a topic in which seniors have greater need and interest than most other segments of the population. For example, a person calls and tells you that if you have Medicare, you can get a back brace for free. Now what senior doesn’t have Medicare? And what senior doesn’t have some type of back pain?
Sometimes the caller will use the name of an actual company and sometimes just one that sounds real. The catch is that the phone number they provide is not the number for any legitimate company.
Once they’ve got you on the phone, the person will explain all the marvelous benefits of the brace. And since you have Medicare, you don’t have to pay a thing. You just have to give the person on the phone the last four digits of your social security number. You have to do what!?! If it hasn’t already, that’s when a humongous red flag should go up. No company should be asking for any part of your social security number over the phone.
If these scammers called you, that means they have not only your name and phone number, but probably also your address – all the things needed to “check your identification” when calling your bank to move money, etc. Therefore, it is very important that you do not give any part of your social security number out to someone over the phone.
Another type of scam making the rounds recently involves convincing the elderly that their children or grandchildren have become caught up in the legal system. For example, someone will call an elderly person’s home claiming to be their granddaughter or grandson’s lawyer, stating that they were arrested for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, i.e., being in an Uber when the driver was also transporting an illegal substance.
The “lawyer” will convince the elderly person that they need to wire bail money to a specific (usually out-of-state) account immediately to help their grandchild. They’re asking you to do what!?! This is another red flag. No one should be asking you to wire money to them over the phone. They will usually also tell the senior not to call the police or inform anyone else in the family, allegedly to avoid shaming the grandchild and to prevent the offense from going on their “permanent record.”
Sometimes – if the senior is hard of hearing or just to alarm the senior further – they might even put a young person on the phone who pretends to be the grandchild. It is important for the senior to ask their grandchild a question only they would know the answer to. This is the easiest way to determine the truth.
What’s scarier, if unscrupulous parties successfully obtain money from a senior, they’ll likely continue to perpetuate the scam, calling back to ask the elderly person for more money for a variety of reasons; i.e., the bail was more expensive than they thought, they need money for legal fees and expenses, they want to start a lawsuit, etc.
This brings me to another scam that isn’t just limited to seniors – in fact, many attorneys at our firm have gotten this call, myself included. I received the call on my home phone from someone claiming to be from the IRS. He said that I owed back taxes and would be arrested if I did not call back to settle my account. The caller ID was just some random number, so I didn’t answer. The reason that I know about it is that they left a voicemail. No, I did not call back. I simply erased the message and never heard from them again.
The fear of being arrested is pretty strong. This can be even truer for seniors who grew up in other countries. You need to assure them that the IRS does not call you on the phone and they certainly don’t arrest people for owing taxes.
Why the Elderly?
Why are seniors so frequently targeted? According the a recent FBI report, senior citizens are more likely than the general population to have assets – own a home, have excellent credit, etc. – which make them attractive to con artists; they were raised to be polite and trusting; they’re less likely to report fraud and/or don’t know who to report it to; they often make poor witnesses due to the effects of aging on memory, as well as the fact that it often takes weeks to months for them to realize they were scammed; and they are more susceptible to certain types of scams, usually those involving health, healthcare, and the wellbeing of their family (https://www.fbi.gov/scams-and-safety/common-fraud-schemes/seniors).
What Can You Do About It?
What can you do if you or a loved one falls victim to a scam? You need to inform your local authorities (police, local representative, state senator). Getting scammed is not a crime and there is no way for the authorities to bring the perpetrators to justice unless they are aware of the situation.
You also need to contact the financial institutions that you deal with. Let them know what happened. They can put an alert on your account or add additional security such as a secondary password. You should also call one of the three credit bureaus (Equifax, Experian, or TransUnion). They have an automated service that will put an alert on your account and let you know if anyone is trying to access your credit.
You can also put a withdrawal limit on yours or a loved one’s accounts, requiring another person to sign off on/or be made aware of amounts that are above a certain limit. This is a way to allow seniors to retain their dignity but prevents large sums from being withdrawn without at least a notification to a trusted family member.
How can you prevent this to begin with? That is a harder question because it deals with the nature of seniors. One habit seniors should try to break is the need to always answer the phone. I’ve found this extremely difficult for many seniors. They just have to know who’s calling them.
Getting a phone with Caller ID will help, but that doesn’t always work because of 800 numbers and cell phones. So the other thing the new phone needs is memory. Enter everyone’s phone number into the memory. That way, when the senior looks at the ID, it will say “Bill’s Cell” and not just the phone number.
The third thing the phone needs is a voicemail system that even the least tech-savvy senior can operate. Many seniors will never use a system where they have to dial into the service to retrieve their messages. My philosophy is that if someone really wants to speak to me, they’ll leave a message.
Another suggestion is to get a phone that actually speaks and says who’s calling. It’s a neat little feature (but the text to voice conversion is not always the greatest).
The biggest thing is to get your loved one to understand that if they do not know who’s calling, DON’T pick up the phone. Let it go to voicemail.
There are countless scams out there. Most of them prey on the senior’s fears, love of their children or grandchildren, or their innocence in thinking that something is free. As hard as it is to say, help your loved ones understand that the world we live in is just not that way. Keeping them informed on the ways to remain safe is the best gift you can give them.
Thank you to Michelle Toscano for her research, writing, and editing assistance.