The Worst Scams Targeting Seniors

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Yesterday, President Obama took some time away from dealing with the oil spill to express his outrage at another big problem in this country - the continued threat of scammers going after older Americans. “Seniors are frequently targeted by scam artists," Obama said at a town hall event. "To all who would swindle and steal from seniors, we are going to find you. We will prosecute you and we will ultimately prevent those crimes from ever happening again."

The president pointed out a couple of tactics that scammers use to swindle seniors before announcing that the federal government has created Health Care Fraud Prevention and Enforcement Action Team (HEAT) to help crack down on this problem.

Reports have shown that scammers are more likely to target older Americans. In 2009, 25% of all scam complaints filed with the Fraud Center at the National Consumers’ League came from people 56 and older. Hopefully, the administration’s new task force will help to decrease the number of seniors who get swindled, but in the meantime, there are several scams out there that older Americans need to be diligent in watching out for.

Here are the worst and strangest scams targeting the elderly.

Medicare Scam

Few scams are as costly to the elderly community and America as a whole as Medicare scams. This kind of fraud costs taxpayers $60 billion each year, and even worse, the crime itself is becoming more violent. ABC News reports that more armed gangs are getting involved with this kind of fraud, lured by the potential to make a lot of money.

According to the FBI, Medicare fraud can occur in a few different ways. There is the “rolling lab” scheme where individuals pretending to be medical professionals conduct fake tests on you at a nursing home, fitness club or elsewhere and charge your Medicare account. Or fraudsters may go door to door offering seniors free medical products that they later bill to their Medicare account.

Other times, all it takes is someone getting hold of your identification number and using it to charge purchases to your Medicare account. This happened to one woman in New York who was charged nearly $50,000 for ridiculous claims like “semen analysis and prostate exams.” (Just to reiterate, this woman is not a man.)

Much of this can be avoided by keeping detailed records of your medical expenses. The FBI recommends that you keep records of all your doctors appointments and only give out your Medicare identification sparingly to your physician and certified professionals. And, in general, be skeptical about accepting medical services from people going door to door, especially if they claim to be offering those services for free.

According to Medicare.gov, if you do have a suspicion that you’ve been charged for a service that you haven’t actually received, you should first call your physician to see if it’s just a simple mistake that can be fixed. If that doesn’t work, then call your Medicare provider.

Funeral Scams

While most funeral homes are reputable places of business, a few have been known to take advantage of customers in very devious ways. Some funeral parlors fail to disclose pricing charts for funeral arrangements, which they are required to do by law; others have been known  to sell faulty coffins. But the most common threat to customers is the prepaid funeral scam.

The Wall Street Journal reports that more and more Americans are signing up for prepaid funerals in an attempt to get the best prices now and to ease the burden on their loved ones, but unfortunately this practice is wracked by fraud.

“Not only are prepaid funeral plans often stacked against consumers, but some operators engage in fraud. While petty scams have long plagued the industry, in recent years the sums have been growing, say regulators,” the Journal reports. Funeral parlors sometimes fail to deliver the services that have been paid for or make it very difficult to cancel the plan. States are now beginning to institute regulations on prepaid funerals, but for the time being, you should think twice before investing in these.

Check out MainStreet’s roundup of other funeral secrets you should know.

Census Scams

In the first half of this year, elderly members of several communities became the victims of census fraud. In the suburbs of Chicago, homeowners received a letter from the National Census for Senior Citizens, which asked a few simple questions about their politics before asking them to provide credit card information. And according to the AARP, seniors elsewhere in the country have reportedly been asked to provide information about their bank accounts and even Social Security information. The bottom line for seniors – and all Americans - to remember – is that any form claiming to be from the federal government will never require you to provide this kind of information.

Anti-Aging Products

Let’s face it: We’re all a little vain, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that as we get older, we become more susceptible to advertising that claims to fight the effects of aging. That said, you don’t want to be suckered into spending lots of money on products that will have minimal or no impact. A few years ago, the Federal Trade Commission cracked down on two businesses in Florida offering “pills and sprays” that promised to “provide anti-aging benefits, including weight loss and increased cognitive function.” Similarly, businesses have come under fire for tricking customers into signing up for free trials of anti-aging products only to charge them hundreds of dollars a year.

WebMD recommends that consumers take a skeptical approach to these products. Don’t believe any anti-aging product that markets itself with slogans like “scientific breakthrough” or “secret ingredient,” or who fail to advertise any side effects.

However, if you are looking for some beauty products, check out our roundup of essentials for people over 50.

Caregiver Scams

Sometimes, the scammer may be right under your own roof. According to BankRate.com, there have been many cases over the years of caregivers building relationships with seniors only to turn around and siphon off their life insurance policies or property. “Hiring a caregiver or other employee is an important decision. Like all prospective employers, you should conduct a thorough background check before hiring. Insist on calling former employers and landlords or hire an online company that does background checks for a small fee,” BankRate reports.

Lottery and Sweepstakes Scams

Each year, millions of consumers are tricked into lottery and sweepstakes scams, and many of the victims tend to be elderly Americans. In some cases, seniors will receive a letter in the mail informing them that they’ve won a handsome amount of money in some foreign country, but you’ll be asked to pay a “processing fee.” In another version, the scammer actually mails a counterfeit check and asks the victim to cash it and mail back a portion of the winnings. Sure enough, they do it, only to find that the check has bounced. As a rule of thumb, don’t believe it when a company tells you you’ve won a boatload of money. Do some research first.

Fake Grandkids Scam

Last year, we reported on a strange new phenomenon called the Fake Grandkids scam. Essentially, a scammer will call up an elderly person posing as their grandchild and claim to be somewhere in Canada and in desperate need of a few thousand dollars in order to fix up their car and make it back to the states. In another similar scam, a fraudster will call up an elderly person and claim to be a Canadian police officer calling on behalf of some family member who has been arrested and now needs you to pay bail.  We’re not exactly sure why these scams have to be set in Canada, but regardless, before you cut a check to your relative, it might be a good idea to call up someone else in the family to see if there’s any merit behind the call.

Check out MainStreet’s roundup of online tools to prevent ID theft.

—For a comprehensive credit report, visit the BankingMyWay.com Credit Center.

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