Senior citizens are a special target for fraudsters. They are most likely to have a “nest egg,” to own their home, and/or to have excellent credit—all of which make them attractive to con artists. Additionally, people who grew up in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s were generally raised to be polite and trusting. Con artists exploit these traits, knowing that it is difficult or impossible for many of these individuals to say “no” or just hang up the telephone.
U.S. Senator Jeanne Shaheen has been joined by Derick Rill of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), James Boffetti of the N.H. Attorney General’s Office, and Mike Gendron of the U.S. Postal Service’s Postal Inspection Service for senior fraud seminars in Portsmouth and at strategic locations throughout the state.
Seniors are targeted in many ways, some obvious and some not so obvious. This list summarizes some of the most common topics that were covered in the senior seminar. This list is far from covering all the topics that are important in today's world.
Medicare Card. What almost every con artist knows that you may not realize is that every senior's Medicare Identification Card contains their Social Security number in bold print on its front. Using only that number and your name, both contained on the Medicare card, the fraudster can steal your identity and literally bankrupt you. The best advice is to put your Medicare ID card in a very safe place, keep it there, and never carry it in your purse or wallet. Some thieves snatch purses or pick pockets especially for that Medicare card.
“Free healthcare equipment”. Nothing is “free”. Period. Some unethical medical equipment purveyors will advertise free equipment in exchange for your Medicare number. The scam involves shipping the equipment to you then forging Medicare claim forms and receiving payment for equipment that was not prescribed by your doctor and in most cases it was not needed. If you fall victim to this fraud, you may eventually have to reimburse Medicare for the cost of the equipment.
“Driveby Ransomware”. Ransom-ware is a relatively new phenomenon on the internet that targets seniors and others who may not be quite so tech-savvy. The ransom-ware loads on the user's computer on clicking an innocent-looking link either on a web page or in an email. Soon after that, a screen containing official-looking FBI logo and other seriously intimidating text and logos comes on the monitor and it cannot be cleared. The screen demands some amount of money transfer as a “fine” to unlock the user computer and it usually contains threats of some sort of prosecution for having illegal content on the user computer if the “fine” is not paid immediately. The ransom-ware usually has “Reveton” in its software name and it can be loaded by the “Citadel” (malware) platform. Best advice for handling these issues is to be sure your anti-virus software is up to date and if this screen appears, reboot the computer.
Telemarketing Fraud. By far, the most common fraud comes to you through the telephone. Current software has the ability for fraudsters anywhere to create official-sounding messages and press “go” on their home computer and have it call thousands of telephone numbers searching for gullible seniors who will send money, order bogus products, buy bogus credit card and identification protection, give out credit card numbers trying to lower interest rates, or any number of “cons”. Pay attention to the female voice on most of these calls; that voice is a virtual woman on the internet and it has been named “Rachel”. FTC is well aware of it and it has operated numerous telephone lines at its offices to attempt to track “Rachel” and prosecute the fraudsters. When Rachel calls, just hang up... she is a computer that is most likely in some con artist's basement, making thousands of calls every day. She will most likely call again within a day or so and no extent of yelling at her will make her go away.
ID theft. According to the Federal Trade Commission, at least half of the 2 million consumer complaints it receives every year are related to identity theft. Closer to home, the NH Attorney General's office received over 10,000 calls related to identity theft in 2012 alone. These complaints are mostly related to thieves using a person's information buy merchandise either by using their credit card numbers or bank account numbers or even opening credit accounts using the person's social security number. The personal information can be obtained in numerous ways, most common being copying a credit card number during a sale transaction, obtaining social security number from a Medicare card, or “conning” an unsuspecting person with numerous telephone or internet fraud schemes.
Secret Shopper. Most of us have seen advertisements for secret shoppers. Sometimes the program sounds too good to be true and it is. The fraud involves the con artist sending the shopper a check to be cashed and purchase a few items which will not exceed about half the check amount, then return the balance to the con artist, and keep the merchandise. The problem is that the check was forged and the shopper cashed it and returned “clean money” to the con artist. In the end, the shopper has committed a crime by cashing the bogus check and the con artist vanishes with the shopper's clean money.
Identity protection. While some of the identity protection businesses can be legitimate, some are scams of some sort themselves. According to Derick Rill of the Federal Trade Commission, that protection company whose president advertised his social security number in various TV ads was forced to withdraw its commercials due to false advertising. As identity protection becomes more of an issue, businesses will undoubtedly spring up offering any number of services for a fee, but beware of free offers and high fees for services you can easily do yourself.
Every citizen is entitled to a free credit report from each of the three credit reporting companies every year. Visit the FTC free credit report site for guidance and warnings about sites with similar sounding names. The FTC approved web site is https://www.annualcreditreport.com and there are many similar sounding names. If you prefer, you may call 1-877-322-8228 to receive your free report. Everyone should check their credit reports at least once a year and report any suspicious activity. In a worst case situation, for a small fee of about $10 you can put a freeze on your credit reporting, unfreeze it for a short time, to for example buy a car, then re-freeze your credit reporting. Information related to all of this is available free by calling the FTC at 1-877-FTC-HELP.
The FTC offers a free e-newsletter which can be obtained at ftc.gov/subscribe.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation also maintains a comprehensive explanation of scams and frauds, FBI web site.
In New Hampshire, the Attorney General's office can be reached at 603-271-3641.
Seniors and those who help seniors with their affairs need to be aware that con artists and fraudsters always appear and sound like some of the most trustworthy people on earth. Far from that, they simply have little or no conscience and most of them actually enjoy “hooking” seniors and taking their money. For most of them, it is some sort of game with a high monetary pay-back.