Older adults are rightly admired for their tendency to be polite, open-hearted and generous. Most of us respond to those traits with respect and efforts to follow their example.
Con artists, unfortunately, are responding with a growing number of scams — often phone and Internet-based — that turn Texas seniors’ character assets into liabilities.
Laura Albrecht of the Texas Department of Aging and Disability Services (DADS) said many older people consider it rude to question a pleasant-seeming stranger’s good intentions.
"These folks were raised in an era when politeness earned trust and it felt deeply uncomfortable to tell a nice-sounding person, ‘I won’t give you that information’ or ‘I never do that kind of business over the phone,’" Albrecht explained.
There’s no clearinghouse of statistics on fraud against elders, but AARP surveys suggest that telemarketers most often target victims 50 and older with scam attempts increasing with age.
Some of the more common phone-based scams identified by law enforcement agencies and consumer advocates include:
Pitches, often for travel packages and sweepstakes, that start with the phrase, "You’ve already won!" but require you to pay upfront for "postage and handling" or other charges. "Must act now" is another sure fire tipoff line. Phone messages in which the caller demands a callback to "discuss an urgent matter concerning your credit card account." Never call the given number. Instead, call the toll-free customer service number on your bill and ask if there’s an issue with your account. Any unsolicited call in which you’re asked to give your credit card number or expiration date, date of birth, bank account number or Social Security number, or any kind of account password. Sales offers for deeply discounted vitamins, medicines or health care products. Charities that ask you to give over the phone.
Albrecht noted that seniors should be especially cautious about phone charity calls made in the aftermath of major disasters such as hurricanes.
"That’s a classic time when you see a lot of solicitations designed to prey on people’s emotions," Albrecht said. "Some may be legitimate, but it’s best to be double safe and not respond directly to the call. Look them up first."
That’s also good advice for any phone request for a donation. Decline the phone donation request and check the charity out with the Better Business Bureau (www.bbb.org/us/charity) before making your contribution.
Although senior-targeted Internet scams still lag behind telemarketing fraud, they’re growing fast. The creativity of Internet swindlers sometimes rivals the legitimate masterminds of Apple and Google. However, their meat-and-potatoes schemes tend to focus on credit card fraud, identity theft, fraudulent billing, illegal pharmacies (often selling counterfeit medicines) and merchandise that will not be delivered.
Because physical as well as financial health is at stake, consumers should take special care in buying medicines online. Never buy from unlicensed distributors or ones that sell drugs without a prescription.
If your medicines look different from what you’ve been taking — or look suspicious in any other way — show them to a pharmacist or doctor before taking them.
Internet-based credit card fraud often concentrates on "phishing" scams aimed at getting your credit card account or other personal information. Never respond to unsolicited e-mails that require you to supply or "verify" your information. This is often done by e-mailing you a link to a fake (though often very real-looking) website.
Non-delivery of ordered merchandise and other Internet scams can be reported to the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center. Go to www.fbi.gov and search on Internet Fraud. Information and contact information for the Complaint Center, as well as other advice on Internet fraud, is on this site.
Another good resource for Texas consumers is the Attorney General’s Consumer Protection unit: www.oag.state.tx.us/consumer/scams.shtml.