The most common elder scams and BBB tips to avoid them

Jim Winsett of the BBB.
photo Jim Winsett of the BBB.

Q. What advice may BBB provide on elder abuse and fraud?

A. It's a timely question since Thursday was Elder Abuse Awareness Day. The issue brings to mind troubling scenarios involving physical mistreatment, but sadly there are other aspects to the problem. The elderly are often victimized by scammers intent on robbing as many of their life savings as possible.

The Better Business Bureau is keenly aware of the problem. Unfortunate stories are reported to BBBs across the nation regarding scams perpetrated on older Americans. Why pick on seniors?

The reasons are many for targeting the elderly. Among them:

  • Increased likelihood of having some savings, owning a home and having good credit.
  • Exploitable characteristics like politeness, susceptibility to confusion and other aging mental effects.
  • Interest in products that offset the physical and mental effects of aging.
  • Reluctance to report victimization for fear of exposing their vulnerability to family members.
  • Increased likelihood that they live alone, are home more often and are more inclined to answer the phone.

Here are some of the most frequently used scams on the elderly:

  • Fake Medicare representatives. Scammers pose as Medicare workers in order to get personal information, either over the phone or by setting up fake "mobile clinics."
  • Counterfeit prescription drugs. Internet sales of fake medications endanger the physical and financial health of seniors, who are often in search of ways to save by using online prescription outlets.
  • Funeral scammers. Crooks attend funerals, approach a grieving widow or widower and claim the deceased owed them money.
  • Fraudulent anti-aging products. A countless array of bogus products and treatments aim for seniors' wallets with promises of a return to a youthful appearance.
  • Social Security fakes. Callers or emailers claim to need to update a Social Security recipient's information.
  • IRS scams. A caller claims to be from the IRS and demands immediate payment of overdue taxes under threat of arrest.
  • Sweepstakes and lottery scams. Notification is made that a person has won a large prize and only needs to make a smaller payment to "unlock" their winnings.
  • Jury duty scam. A caller demands immediate payment of a "fine" for not having shown up for jury duty.
  • Utility scams. Services are threatened to be shut off unless a payment is made at once.
  • Grandparent scam. This one has been around for a long time and continues to be used. A caller claims to be a grandchild in trouble and needing money right away. Usually there is a request that the "grandchild's" parents not be told.

What are the safeguards?

Seniors should remember to always screen their phone calls, answering or returning the call only if they know the caller.

Under no circumstances should one give out private information to a stranger over the phone or in an email. Any phoned request for a charitable contribution should be ignored or you should tell them to mail you their information first.

For those concerned about an elderly friend or family member, keep these warning signs in mind:

  • Sudden changes to wills or powers of attorney.
  • They have a new phone friend.
  • Mentions of lost or stolen credit cards.
  • Sudden changes in banks or financial institutions.
  • Sudden large withdrawals of cash.
  • Unusual purchases or unpaid bills.

As family, friends and associates, it is our individual responsibility to help the senior demographic.

Jim Winsett is president of the Better Business Bureau in Chattanooga.