My 86 year old mother-in-law received a phone call recently that points up a serious and growing problem for seniors. When she answered the phone, a woman on the other end asked for her by name. After acknowledging that the caller was speaking to the right person, the woman identified herself as an employee of a well known private package delivery company and said she had a package scheduled for delivery to my in-laws’ address.
She said she wanted to be sure someone would be home to receive it because it was a C.O.D delivery. It would require payment of $100. The caller asked if she had the money to pay the charge.
My mother-in-law, a sharp and somewhat skeptical woman by nature, became immediately suspicious. She’s probably never received a C.O.D. package in her life and couldn’t imagine who would send send her one now.
“Who’s it from,” she asked.
“Ï don’t have that information,” said the woman, “but you can check it when our driver delivers it.”
The woman spoke with a thick accent, my mother-in-law, whose hearing isn’t what it used to be, later told us. After asking the caller to repeat herself several times, she asked to speak with someone she could understand better. The woman told her she couldn’t do that and pleaded that it might cause a problem with her employer and that she could lose her job.
That was the final straw for my feisty mother-in-law.
“Well, you can keep your package,” she said into the phone, and she hung up.
A few minutes later, my wife arrived for a routine visit, and her mother told her about the strange call. “Mom,” said my wife, “That sounds like a scam.”
My wife called the local office of the delivery service the woman claimed to work for, and after recounting the story, she was told no such call had been made from their office and none of the woman’s story conformed to company policy.
Scams and fraud aimed at seniors topped 5 million reported incidents last year, according to the Securities Exchange Commission, more than 30% of all reported cases. Organizations tracking such cases, including the FBI, AARP, and state Attorney General offices estimate that no more than twenty percent of the incidents of schemes aimed at seniors are ever reported to the authorities.
It’s frightening to think what might have happened if my mother-in-law had allowed that phony delivery to be made. The scammers had her name, address and phone number. If she had told the woman on the phone that she had cash to pay the C.O.D. charge and waited for someone show up, it could have ended much worse than being out $100 for a worthless delivery.
Even when it was clear to her that she had been a target of one of the myriad of rip-offs aimed particularly at seniors, she was reluctant to let her daughter report it to the authorities. This is common among seniors, who frequently don’t want to “bother the police or make trouble.” Often, if they actually are victimized, they are too embarrassed or frightened to admit they’ve been taken.
My wife insisted on making a report, however, and though our local sheriff’s department didn’t have enough to go on for an arrest, they expressed gratitude for the information so they could add it to their database and include it in the periodic warnings of scams they make to our large seniors community.
Watchdog groups, such as stopseniorscams.org, say seniors are particular targets of scammers because, unlike my mother-in-law, most of them are too trusting. Also, by the time they reach retirement age, most seniors have accumulated significant nest eggs, generally have good credit, often own their own homes, and they are reluctant to be rude to strangers who call them on the phone or show up at their front door. They may also fear reporting they have been victimized because it might signal to family members that they are no longer capable of making their own decisions, possibly resulting in the loss of their independence.
Senior fraud is estimated to cost more than 40 billion dollars in losses each year. While there are almost as many scams as there are con-men and women, they generally fall into four predictable categories: financial schemes such as long term annuities or investments that promise unrealistic returns, telemarketing sales, mail fraud, and door-to-door solicitation.
Many states have passed laws increasing penalties for defrauding seniors, but the best defense is avoiding the schemes in the first place.
These guidelines will help seniors defend themselves:
1. Beware of anyone who promises quick and easy profits.
If it sounds too good to be true, it almost always is.
2. Never succumb to pressure to “act now, before it’s too late.”
If the offer is now or never, make it never.
3. Keep all personal financial information, account numbers,
social security numbers and passwords private.
4. Never allow strangers to come into your home and take personal
information without checking them out first, and never give
financial or any personal information to strangers over
the phone or the Internet.
5. Never sign a power of attorney to anyone you don’t know well and trust.
6. Never sign any contract with blank lines, and never sign
any document at all that you haven’t had time to thoroughly
7. Never arrange a home loan until you can have some knowledgeable
person you trust review it.
8. Beware of any “cash only” deals. Reputable companies almost never
make cash the only option.
9. When discarding old bills, receipts or junk mail containing
any of your personal information, always shred them first.
10. Don’t be afraid to report any experience you’re uncomfortable
with, even if you turn it down.
One final bit of advice, admirably demonstrated by my canny mother-in-law. Never automatically assume that the voice of a stranger on the phone is who he or she claims to be.