Most adults can end the cliché that begins with “If it sounds too good to be true …”
Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons senior citizens may be more susceptible to fraud than the population as a whole.
“Seniors will be more apt to report fraud,” said Jim Flaherty, communications director for the Wisconsin office of the American Association of Retired Persons. “Seniors are more susceptible targets for fraud — a lot of them are more trusting, and they’re less likely to question the validity of a phone call. And frankly they have money — they tend to have deeper pockets and bigger bank accounts than kids, and these scams are really good.”
A list of senior citizen-targeted scams from AARP’s Fraud Watch Network, which is online at www.aarp.org/money/scams-fraud/fraud-watch-network/, includes:
• “… multiple robo calls, plus some human phone calls,” telling the caller that the caller’s computer “is sending disturbing information.” The call ended when the intended victim asked for the victim’s computer’s IP number.
• An 89-year-old woman was told she had won $2 million, which she could obtain by sending $150 in an envelope. The woman got as far as the post office, where she planned to use express mail to send the money, before a Postal Service worker told her of the scam.
• Another person received a notice from “CDC Internet Alert Systems” that a background check had been performed on that person, the evidence of which could be found by clicking on a link.
• An offer sent to a disabled person to be a mystery shopper; the person was to be sent a $2,780 check that the person was to cash, keep $170, and then wire the rest to two businesses.
There is also the foreign-country lottery, where people are told they have won millions of dollars, accessible by sending money, and its cousin, the foreign-country will bequest, where millions of dollars from a will bequest is accessible by, again, sending money.
Another fraud is the call from a supposed young relative announcing a need for bail money after his or her arrest in a foreign country.
“They play on heartstrings,” said Flaherty. “Seniors can be very trusting. Their generation didn’t grow up with these kinds of scams.”
The two most common kinds of fraud are consumer fraud — getting someone to buy something or send money — and identity fraud, a problem not limited to senior citizens.
“One advice we give to folks is don’t ever, ever give out personal information over the phone,” said Flaherty. That includes Social Security numbers, bank account or credit card numbers, and Medicare numbers. “If it’s legitimate, they don’t need you to give out your Social Security or bank numbers; they already have it.”
The AARP Fraud Watch Network allows users to report fraud, and to get alert messages about the latest fraud attempt.
Another resource about fraud is the Wisconsin Senior Medicare Patrol, a project of the Coalition of Wisconsin Aging Groups. The SMP provides training and information for Medicare beneficiaries, caregivers and professionals on such issues as Medicaid and Medicare, Medicare parts A through D, and Medicare statement overbilling. SMP held training sessions in Platteville earlier this year.
“It’s a big problem,” said Kevin Brown, CWAG SMP project director. “It’s estimated that Medicaid and Medicare fraud costs taxpayers $60 billion to $90 billion a year. It’s a huge issue, which is money that is wasted; and it’s also a quality of care issue — they get substandard service, or they’re not getting what they paid for.”
Examples of Medicare fraud include unnecessary surgeries or treatments, or someone ordering a top-of-the-line wheelchair and getting a cheap model instead, while Medicare is billed for the wheelchair that was ordered. Variants are a person’s being sold “an expensive big scooter for somebody who lives in a tiny apartment,” said Brown, or online prescription drug ordering for an inappropriately low price.
The best advice to thwart a consumer or identity fraud attempt, said Flaherty, is to “keep asking questions. If it’s a fireman’s [relief] fund — what community is this? Who is the fire chief?” He said a big clue to a fraud attempt is “if they don’t really have local information; they don’t know your community at all.”
As for Medicare fraud, said Brown, “We encourage them to keep track of their health care appointments.” A personal health journal, available from SMP, allows people to keep track of doctor visits as well as equipment ordered and delivered. Users then can match that to their Medicare Summary Notices to match what they were supposed to get with what they actually got.
“There might be services on there they didn’t receive; there might be duplicate charges,” said Brown. “And then report it to Medicare to get it straightened out.”
Fraud is becoming increasingly sophisticated. “Spoofing” involves putting a legitimate phone number — for instance, police or the local Internet provider — on a call that is not from where the Caller ID says it is. Email is also a potential avenue for spoofing.
“The technology is getting to be such that they’re able to tap into local phone numbers to make it appear that it’s legitimate,” said Flaherty. “It’s best to call them back at the number and see how that works.”
One way to prevent fraud is to prevent opportunities for fraud. Flaherty suggests mailing items, particularly “something sensitive,” from a post office or street mail box, not from your own personal mailbox. The fact that stealing mail is a federal crime apparently does not deter fraudsters.
“That’s an easy target, where people take mail out of your mailbox,” he said.
The difficulty with stopping fraud is that there are few publicized arrests for fraud. Another is that fraud need not have a high success rate to be successful.
“They’re very sophisticated and unfortunately successful,” said Brown. “It only takes one victim to make money. You can call 10 people, and if only one sends you money, you’re successful.”
One counterexample is the June arrests of 243 people, including 46 doctors, nurses and licensed medical personnel, for alleged false Medicare billings totaling an estimated $712 million. Another is Dr. Farid Fata of Oak Park, Mich., who pleaded guilty in 2014 to 13 counts of health care fraud, two counts of money laundering, and one count of conspiracy to pay and receive kickbacks. Fata was accused of, among other crimes, telling patients they had cancer and then administering unneeded chemotherapy, and giving useless treatments to terminal patients. Fata was sentenced in July to 45 years in federal prison, which was less than the sentence federal prosecutors sought — 175 years in prison.
“The main advice I would have is to be alert — not suspicious of everyone, but don’t be too trusting,” said Brown. “Whether it’s health care fraud or consumer fraud, they sound professional — there are smart people who have been victimized by these scams.”
“Vigilance is also on all of us — we can’t rely on the police or the government to protect our identity and our personal assets,” said Flaherty. “Everybody has a role in this.”