Going through this pandemic together has brought out the best in our communities and neighbors; people are rallying to help and support each other. Unfortunately, there are others who are taking advantage of the situation and using it as an opportunity to scam our most vulnerable populations. This is by no means an isolated instance or anything out of the ordinary. In fact, financial scams targeting seniors have become so prevalent that they’re now considered “The Crime of the 21st Century,” resulting in combined annual losses of $36 billion for victims. We wanted to take the opportunity to outline some of the most common scams targeting seniors and share some best practices on how to avoid them.
While scams of many types are ever-present, COVID-19 has opened up a new world of opportunities for those perpetrating them. 9,116 coronavirus-themed spear-phishing emails were spotted between March 1 and March 23, 2020. Unfortunately, the FBI anticipates fraudulent activity regarding purchases of masks, hand sanitizer, and other medical supplies will continue. In addition, government-sponsored programs and insurance programs are going to be targets. This includes reaching out for information regarding upcoming stimulus checks. If you want details on specific scams related to COVID-19 that have been found, you can find a roundup here.
- The IRS will never call you and demand immediate payment.
- The federal government will never ask you to pay anything up front to receive any benefit.
- Do not click on any links sent to you by addresses or people you don’t recognize.
- When in doubt, hang up the phone or delete the email. Research the agency that claims to be reaching out and call or email them back directly.
Medicare/Health Insurance Scams
In these types of scams, perpetrators pose as a Medicare or insurance representative to try to get seniors to give them their personal information or Medicare number. These could potentially increase at a time when people have an ever-increasing number of questions about their coverage in relation to the virus.
- A legitimate CMA, HHS, or any other Medicare Advantage plan employee won’t ask for personal information (Medicare number, social security number, bank account number, or address) over phone or email – they already have it on file.
- Never sign a Medicare form without thorough examination. Get help from a friend, family member, or lawyer to review it with you.
- When in doubt, call Medicare. Visit medicare.gov or call 1-800-MEDICARE with any questions or concerns you may have.
Counterfeit Prescription Drugs
Counterfeit drug scams usually operate on the internet, where they take advantage of seniors trying to find better prices on medications. The danger of this is two-fold: seniors are being tricked out of money and sometimes may actually receive unsafe substances that can be damaging to their health masquerading as medicine.
- Never purchase drugs from an unknown or unreliable source. Try to make sure someone you know has heard of the pharmacy or service. If in doubt, look for another option.
- Talk to your physician before making any changes to your prescription or medication.
- Make sure an online seller is licensed. The FDA, the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy and the Center for Safe Internet Pharmacies offer tools for finding safe and legal online pharmacies.
- Check that the site lists a U.S. address and phone number.
- Don’t buy from a pharmacy that doesn’t require a prescription from your doctor and doesn’t have a licensed pharmacist you can consult.
Funeral and Cemetery Scams
The FBI warns about two types of fraud in this category that target seniors. The first approach is attending funeral services and taking advantage of grieving families by claiming their recently-deceased loved one has an outstanding debt. Another tactic is when funeral homes themselves try to capitalize on a family’s lack of familiarity with the cost of services.
- Take time to call and shop around before making any decision or purchase. Funeral homes are required to provide detailed general price lists over the phone or in writing.
- Carefully read contracts and purchasing agreements before signing. Seek out a friend or family member to provide a “second set of eyes.”
- Don’t allow yourself to feel pressured into making a purchase, signing a contract, or committing funds. Contact a lawyer if you need expert advice.
- Do not make any payments on behalf of anyone before making absolutely sure you’re contractually obligated to do so. Any legitimate debt or obligation will be very well documented and you have a right to see that documentation before making any payments.
Perhaps the most common scheme is when scammers use calls to prey on older adults. With no face-to-face interaction and no paper trail, these scams are hard to trace. Usually if someone is successful, the buyer’s name and information is shared with similar scammers. A lot of times, the caller will claim to be a charity asking for money. For more information, examples, and guidelines, visit the FTC.
- Don’t send money or give personal information in response to an unexpected request – whether it be by phone, email, or text.
- Do online searches on the company/person calling you. If you search for it along with words such as review, complain, or scam, you can usually find some information on their legitimacy. If your loved one does not have access to the internet, offer to do this for them.
- Don’t pay upfront for the promise of something that’s coming (e.g., debt relief, credit and loan offers, prize money, etc.).
- Hang up immediately on any robocalls.
The internet can be both a wonderful and terrible place. Seniors’ lack of familiarity with technology and the internet makes them especially prone to scams online. An example is having a pop-up window appear that claims, if you don’t download something, your computer will shut down. Even more common are email/phishing scams which will ask a recipient to update or verify personal or financial information on a website that may, at first glance, appear legitimate but is, instead, fraudulent.
- Always check the web address/URL. Scammers will use names of well-known companies to try to create trust, but the URL will not match that of the real site. For example, a company posing as Facebook might use something like facebook.net.
- Stay skeptical of anyone unexpectedly reaching out asking for information. Only open emails, links, and attachments from trustworthy sources.
- Take a close look at the email address it’s coming from. They will usually look weird and unfamiliar.
While we hope this will provide some guidance, it is by no means an exhaustive list. The AARP has a Fraud Watch Network with a helpline you can call if you or a loved one suspect a scam and you can sign up for free “watchdog alerts.” To view a list of common scams and crimes from the FBI, click here.
As a general rule of thumb, never give out personal or financial information to anyone you don’t know and trust. Especially during this pandemic, if you suspect something might be a scam, ask a family member or friend for help.