Be Aware! The Scams & Phishing Schemes That Target Elderly

Older persons are easy victims of fraud, identity theft, and internet schemes. Old age, trouble seeing and/or hearing and a failing memory are just some reasons thieves target seniors, and What senior can resist a call from a grandchild, even if it’s a desperate plea for money? The grandparent scam is a common way for a thief to get money. The thief poses as a grandchild who is sick, injured, stranded, or in trouble or in dire need of extra funds. Grandma wires the money – a few thousand dollars or more – without giving it a second thought.

Hired home caregiver can also commit fraud easily, especially if there is no one else in the home,  because they have easy access to an elderly person’s personal information. The more an elderly person depends on the caregiver, the more opportunity there is for dishonesty. A caregiver who does the banking, shopping, and pays monthly bills is likely to have access to the elder’s credit or debit cards, passwords and PIN numbers.

The same goes for workers in an adult daycare facility or assisted living complex. Even though each staff member is screened and undergoes a background check, there is still the opportunity for a caregiver to turn dishonest, especially during desperate times.

Robbery of an elderly person is sometimes a matter of opinion. It’s not uncommon for the general public to read or hear stories of how an elderly person – particularly an elder diagnosed with dementia – lost his life savings by signing over huge sums of money to a church or charity. In an independent or dependent living situation, it would be relatively easy to steal jewelry, personal valuables and credit cards from an aging person. If the elderly person suffers from dementia or a debilitating mental condition, then he or she might readily turn over personal information, allow the use of a credit card, or write a check to a “thief” without hesitation.

Thieves can also get into a home through bogus online websites. A thief may call on the phone and pose as government service agent or representative of any organization popular with elderly persons. A thief might pose as a salesman at the door, a telemarketer on the phone, or a visitor from a church. A thief could even be a trusted aid that works closely with the older person. Before discussing the methods to prevent old people from becoming victims of the fraud, let us first discuss some common types of frauds.

Common Scams

There are numerous scams that target elderly persons. A senior may fall victim to a foreign lottery scam, sending a fee and personal info to the distributor in exchange for a big prize that doesn’t exist. The home repair scam is probably one of the oldest con games in the book, but people of all ages still fall for it. This is particularly true after a hurricane or some other disaster when folks need home repairs and are in a hurry to get everything back to normal. Other scams that lure elderly victims:

  • The Internet. The ease and speed of ordering practically anything online increases the chances of getting scammed.
  • Telemarketing. Phony telemarketers advertise a product or service, but the goods don’t exist. The caller is actually phishing for personal information and/or credit card info.
  • The U.S. Post Office isn’t exempt from scam artists and con games. Tons of phony offers and pleas for help are delivered daily to unsuspecting customers.
  • Phony charities with names that sound authentic rake in millions of dollars from victims who let sympathetic emotions cloud good judgment.

Black Widow Scams

Because anyone can fall in love – and make a mistake, another way thieves get money from older people is the black widow scam. The con artist preys on lonely – and wealthy – widows (and widowers) by striking up a close friendship or intimate relationship. The scheme of spending and investing goes on until the victim has lost all savings and assets. But that’s not always the end of the story; an elder may unintentionally give out information about his or her family members – personal information that could end up with one or more relatives becoming a victim of identity theft.

How Black Widow Scams Work

A black widow scam artist can be a stranger or he might even be a former acquaintance – an old classmate or colleague, for example. Elder law experts say black widow thieves may take advantage of a single opportunity to get rich, or the con artist may be a repeat offender – a calculating criminal that is capable of doing anything to get the money he wants. Shown below is a general idea of how black widow thieves operate.

  • A stranger (or acquaintance from the past) grabs an opportunity and casually introduces himself to the elderly person. The thief might even pose as a widow or widower to hook the interest and compassion of the victim. A professional thief knows his victim’s background, weaknesses, and medical ailments. He has already done his homework and he knows there is money to be had.
  • As the “relationship” builds, the thief offhandedly begins to ask personal questions – in a charming way, of course – about family, finances, and who manages the accounts. If there is a caregiver or family member keeping tabs on the finances, then the thief may gently suggest that it’s not wise to allow someone else to be in control, and that the money is “not theirs.”
  • The thief usually pretends to be in love. That much established, he’ll do whatever it takes, claiming he has proof that the elderly person is being robbed by his/her family. He may even provide phony paperwork, fake bank statements, and he may present photos of the family shopping at the mall or supposedly spending (the victim’s) money in some other lavish way.
  • The thief finally convinces the elderly person that he or she needs to cut ties with meddling family members. He suggests the two of them should live together as a couple.
  • Swayed by romance and convinced the new lover may be right, the elderly person complies. It’s only a matter of time before the senior’s savings and assets are depleted by the con artist. Once the money is gone, so is the thief.

Clues that Point to a Black Widow Scam

Black widow scams can happen to anyone, even a victim who has no money and no family. Caregivers, family, even friends and neighbors are warned to look for clues that might point to a friend or loved one involved in a black widow scam:

  • A stranger or former acquaintance suddenly takes a special interest in an elderly or disabled loved one.
  • The new person offers a chance to get into a sure-fire money-making deal, but needs money up front to get started and promises to pay it back.
  • The new person is overly anxious to live together, buy a home or condo, or get married.
  • The scammer takes out a hefty life insurance policy on the victim – this may happen to the elderly or disabled person who has little or no money, no savings, and no family.
  • The scammer wants to have joint bank accounts, or feels he should have access to accounts, using the excuse: “In case something should happen to you.”
  • The scam artist wants the victim to update his will – and wants to be the executor.
  • The scam artist spends money lavishly, shopping, dining, and taking trips – often without the victim. He makes financial decisions without the victim’s knowledge.
  • As the money and assets dwindle, the scammer loses interest in the relationship and leaves.
  • Black widows cleverly gain access to life insurance policies, wills, bank accounts, and anything else of value that the victim owns. Family members may also become victims just by associating with the new “best friend” or “lover” in their loved one’s life. Caregivers and family are warned to look for clues of black widow activity.

Medicare Fraud

Medicare provides the means for basic medical care for elderly persons and individuals with disabilities who qualify. Each year, Medicare participants have the option to choose or update a medical plan to suit current and projected needs. Participants pay premiums for the coverage. But choosing the right Medicare coverage isn’t the only serious issue faced by seniors. Medicare fraud costs Americans millions of dollars annually.

Who commits Medicare fraud? Is it really that important to check the accuracy of a Medicare billing statement? How are lost Medicare funds recovered?

Medicare fraud occurs when a group or individual tries to cheat the Medicare system by billing for services not rendered to a patient. Personal information passes through the hands of numerous health care providers, medical suppliers and insurance business staff. Because so many people are involved with the paperwork, it is difficult to pinpoint a thief. Personal information easily accessed by medical employees includes, but is not limited to:

  • The victim’s address, driver’s license number and phone number
  • Social Security number
  • Credit card information (Paying for co-payments, share of cost and services not otherwise covered by insurance or government Medicaid/Medicare programs.)
  • Insurance carrier, Medicaid or Medicare information

Business office employees working in a medical facility, hospital or doctor’s office have access to the information listed above from hundreds, or even thousands, of patient files. But that’s not all. Pharmacy workers also have access to the same information and so do various staff members at medical supply companies. While most medical staff workers are honest, there are those who are not.

What better group to target – and rob – than the elderly population on Medicare. Elderly people usually have a list of ailments that warrant continuing and multiple medical treatments. An elderly client may use medical devices, take multiple drugs and/or use extended services. Aging seniors are also likely to have memory problems – may have difficulty recalling all the medical attention received at a given time.

It is unlikely that a hospitalized elderly person could recall every detail of the services rendered, especially if it was a long-term stay. A family member who assumed the job of caregiver may not be able to account for everything on the Medicare billing statement either, unless she kept a detailed journal. Patients and families put their trust in medical staff, believing such professionals can do no wrong.

Thieves do count on medical reputation. They also count on elderly persons having a poor memory. They count on distraught family members not taking the time or effort to record details of services the patient received. Regardless of the emotional circumstances, however, it is very important to keep a record for the purpose of checking the accuracy of the Medicare billing statement.

Frauds in Nursing Home

Advanced medical care and safety issues were probably two determinants in relocating the elderly person. Most people – even family members – wouldn’t consider the risk of a scam in a nursing home. However, any elderly person living in a nursing home or assisted care facility could become a victim of a scam operation. Placing an aging parent or elderly loved one in a nursing home or assisted living facility doesn’t guarantee protection against scams and fraud activity.

How Does a Thief Get Information to Plan a Grandparent Scam?

Read the newspaper and see how much family information is included in the average obituary (especially the paid versions). But death notices are only the beginning. A scammer could be someone who lives in the neighborhood – particularly the person who seems to know everybody’s business. An amateur thief would have no trouble at all gaining the facts he needs to pull off a grandparent con job. Check out a sample list of ways a thief can get family information:

  • Ancestry websites. Dating sites and sites where one can look up old schoolmates provide names, ages, employment and all sorts of information that a scamming thief would find useful.
  • Chat rooms online. Anyone who has ever visited a chat room knows the amount of information that usually flies about.
  • Social sites online. Family and friends post all kinds of information on social websites. Thieves look for clues that tell them if the elderly person lives alone and if he or she has a fat bank account.
  • Conversations overheard at work. A newly-hired young associate may be flipping burgers and eavesdropping on other employee conversations. Her ears perk up when she hears the manager describing to another employee how her grandma may be getting on in years, but she’s got plenty of money to spend on another luxury cruise.
  • College dorm students. A thief who’s living among students for months at a time is able to learn all kinds of personal and family information, including whose grandparents have money. He notes a student’s nickname. He listens when a student complains that grandpa can’t remember family names.

How Can Caregivers Help Elderly Parents Avoid a Grandparent Scam?

A caregiver son or daughter can warn an elderly parent(s) about the risk of losing money in a grandparent scam. It may be tough to convince the older family member that a thief could fool grandma or grandpa so easily. Caregivers can also encourage elderly loved ones not to feel embarrassed and to come forward to report the crime should one become a victim of a grandparent scam. A caregiver can inform close family members as to how a grandparent scam works.

Advise the elderly person to avoid volunteering information over the phone that a scammer could use to “fill in the blanks”. Ask the elder to check with a trusted family member before wiring any money. Remember too, that money transfers can be picked up at any service location (such as Western Union) as long as the thief/recipient has the confirmation number.

Caregivers can help stop an elder from becoming a fraud victim by monitoring phone calls, screening mail for suspicious offers and keeping a watchful eye on bank accounts. A caregiver can question home repairs and methods of payment. A well-informed caregiver also knows every detail of the elder’s medical plan and insurance. It pays to stay informed and aware, not only to protect the individual, but also to protect the home, savings and assets belonging to the elderly loved one. Following are some useful tips that can help avoiding scams:

  • Toss into the trash (or delete online) any offers for medical products or drugs that may be of particular interest to an elderly person.
  • Do business with trusted drug companies and medical supply companies that routinely handle the elderly person’s needs.
  • Check with the Better Business Bureau (BBB) before dealing with any new company that offers products to older persons.
  • Decline offers from salesperson selling elder care products door-to-door.
  • Keep close tabs on the elder’s financial accounts; look for suspicious activity that may indicate a scam.
  • Be leery of persons seeking charitable contributions. Elders often lose sight of priorities, giving away money to charities and causes that don’t exist.
  • Be leery of strangers offering home repairs, yard work or any service that an elderly might need – and can now afford with that extra money sent by the government.
  • Read more about grandparent scams here.

Medical Identity Theft

Thieves gather private information from medical records – information that can be used to clean out bank accounts, get a passport, and access health care services. In the most extreme situation, a patient’s stolen identity might even be used by terrorists. It’s imperative that identity theft be reported immediately. Anyone who’s ever been to a doctor, health care facility or clinic knows the patient has to complete at least a moderate amount of paperwork. Private information is collected for insurance and billing purposes and is placed in an online patient file. Personal information usually includes, but is not limited to, a social security number, residence information, insurance carrier, credit card numbers used for co-payments and employment details.

From the moment the patient hands over his personal information, he is at risk for medical identity theft. Unfortunately, the computer that stores the medical information may not have the best security safeguards in place. Sometimes, the information is stolen before it’s put on the computer.

What Groups are Most Vulnerable to Medical Identity Theft?

Anyone can become a victim of medical identity theft. Persons profoundly disabled (such as mentally impaired) and elderly persons too frail to manage their own health care affairs are especially vulnerable. The persons in these groups have to rely on family members and/or paid caregivers to fill out medical forms and take care of medical business affairs.

When a medical billing statement arrives in the mail, it’s not always easy for a caregiver or even a family member to determine if the printed statement of services rendered is correct. Paid caregivers often work in shifts and communication between workers may not be as good as it should be. As a result, the patient may end up paying for services not rendered – or may pay for services “stolen” by a thief in need of medical care.

What’s more, medical identity theft can also lead to altered medical records. This is a dangerous situation for the theft victim. Why? If the thief receives medical care by using information stolen from a victim’s file, the act may comprise the victim’s own treatment and his ability to get future services. The insurance company won’t cover the losses. A medical theft victim may have to pay to keep his health insurance or may end up paying higher premiums to restore the coverage.

How to Avoid Frauds Targeting Elderly People

Avoiding Black Widow Fraud

Family members can fight back against black widows, but most are professionals at what they do. A black widow con artist may be very hard to expose until caught red-handed. Senior citizens, family, friends, and caregivers are urged to watch for clues that may point to a black widow scam and report concerns immediately before it’s too late. If exploitation is suspected, family members may consult the National Center on Elder Abuse for a listing of each state’s abuse directories and hotline numbers. Provided by the NCEA Web site, information and referral is also available from the national Eldercare Locator, a public service of the U.S. Administration on Aging. Call toll-free 1-800-677-1116.

Romance has a way of clouding or distorting a person’s judgment, no matter what the age. Family members and/or caregivers should be prepared for resistance from their aging loved one when suspicions or accusations of fraud and wrongdoing are put out in the open. If the elderly person stubbornly refuses to believe he or she is being victimized, then the family caregiver may have no recourse than to petition for conservatorship to protect the elderly loved one’s money and assets. Unfortunately, this can be a rough undertaking and the court process is both lengthy and emotional.

Avoiding Medicare Fraud

To avoid Medicare fraud, caregivers and senior should follow these steps.

  • Keep a journal or log of every detail of care or treatment rendered, including outpatient services.
  • Ask questions. A patient (or appointed family caregiver) has a right to know everything that’s being done to and for the patient, and why.
  • Know what services Medicare will pay for and what is not covered.
  • Compare Medicare billing statements with the recorded information to see if the billed services match.
  • Report Medicare fraud to your State Medical Assistance Office, or contact a representative at the national number: 1-800- 447-8477.

Besides these steps, seniors and caregivers should consider attending The Senior Medicare Patrol (SMP) Program. The program educates and empowers people with Medicare to take an active role in detecting and preventing health care fraud and abuse. There is a Senior Medicare Patrol Program in every U.S. state, the District of Columbia, Guam, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico. The program offers counseling to Medicare participants and can provide information about area community events.

Preventing Identity Theft of an Elderly Person

What can family members or the primary caregiver do to prevent a thief from gaining information and access to a loved one’s personal and financial information? The best course of action is to plan ahead; specifically, the elderly person is advised to assign a trusted family member or friend with durable power of attorney to manage affairs in the event the elder can no longer take care of such matters.

For the elderly person who cannot manage his affairs, a primary caregiver may want to seek conservatorship to protect the loved one’s assets. Otherwise, encourage the aging loved one to take action if he or she is able to maintain control of financial affairs:

  • Enroll in an Identity Theft Shield program that offers continuous credit monitoring and alerts the owner of suspicious activity.
  • Opt out of credit card solicitation and stop getting all those pre-approved credit card offers. (Be sure to shred the offers that have already arrived.)
  • Take advantage of the credit freeze law so a crook can’t use personal information with a stolen Social Security number and he (or she) cannot access credit files to open a new account(s).

During the emotional time of death, no one – except perhaps a thief – would think of ID theft of the deceased person. Robbery after death is yet another valid reason caregivers and family members, as well as competent elderly persons, are urged to plan ahead to protect finances and estate matters to prevent criminal activity. Secure ID and financial protection now, so that a difficult time won’t turn into an extended tragedy.

Protecting a Patient Against Medical ID Theft

There are steps a caregiver (parent, family member, etc.) can take to protect a vulnerable patient against medical identity theft. Most of the suggestions are easy to follow. Besides paying attention to medical bills and statements of service, what else can a caregiver do to prevent patient ID theft?

  • Suggest to health care providers that patients should have to show a photo ID at appointments.
  • Caregivers are urged to keep a journal of all medical treatments for the patient to match against incoming medical statements and bills for services. Include names, dates, service codes, etc.
  • Keep all statements, bill records and correspondence letters in a file for easy access.
  • Communicate with the insurance company and question anything that appears suspicious.
  • Check with the three major credit reporting agencies (Equifax, Trans Union and Experian) for medical or other activity not authorized by or for the patient.
  • The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) website has posted an informative page titled, “Facts for Consumers” (2010). Caregivers and anyone else can find detailed information on how to detect medical identity theft.
  • Know how to get help for medical identity theft. Start with guidance from the FTC’s Identity Theft Site.

Elderly Victims of Scam Operations Urged to Share Their Stories

Yes, it’s embarrassing for the seniors to tell others that instead of making a little extra money to supplement their monthly retirement income, they became the victim of a scam. What’s worse is that at their age they should have known better, right? Not necessarily, but that’s not the issue here. What’s done is done and there is no way to change what’s happened.

However, there is a way to make something good of a bad situation. How do you do that? Tell the world all about the crime experience. Elderly people should be encouraged to report the crime immediately to the police. Elder people should inform their family of what’s happened. If elderly people inform their family at right time, it is likely that their family members will be more cautious. It might keep a loved one from getting scammed in the future. Talking about the incident has already done some good. Caregivers should also tell friends about the scam operation; Act of sharing information about fraud incident may save one or more pals from the misery of becoming a victim.

If a caregiver belongs to a group that meets regularly, such as a service or church group? If so, then he should ask the group’s leader if he can have a few minutes to share fraud story. If there are 100 elderly (or younger) people at the meeting, that’s 100 more who know to watch out for this specific scam operation and others like it. When a scam crime occurs close to home, people are likely to pay better attention so they can avoid becoming victims themselves.

Caregivers should also report the scam online to Consumer Fraud Reporting. This website offers information on how to report different types of scams, including online scams that can be reported to the U.S. Government’s Internet Crime Complaint Center. There’s an entire section dedicated to Nigerian email and lottery scams, money transfer frauds, lawyers with deceased clients and more. Although old people are more vulnerable to fraud, detection of fraud and fight against fraud is not much difficult. Elder and caregivers need to be vigilant and follow precautions discussed above.