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Scams Often Target Older Adults

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Scams often are geared to older adults with the intent to defraud them of money and even property. However, these scam artists often will stay away from older adults who have a support network. Make your presence visible in your senior loved one's life. If you can't be there, consider recommending to your older adults hiring a second set of eyes and ears such as a professional caregiving service.

Q. I'm a busy and mentally alert 79-year-old who's often targeted by solicitors. How do I know which of these offers are legitimate and which ones might be scams? What kind of scams should I be on guard against?

Sadly, criminals often prey on senior citizens. And a number of scams in the marketplace are evidence that they will try varied approaches, often with success. Mail, email and phone scams, magazine hoaxes, and lottery ploys are among the most popular. Unscrupulous individuals who prey on older adults often use home improvement scams to bilk thousands of dollars from seniors, sometimes even putting their home ownership in jeopardy. Consider the following:

Mail and Telephone Scams

If you get a postcard, letter or telephone call promising an appealing vacation free of charge, you may be the potential target of a mail scam. These scams usually want you to call to claim a vacation, but there's often a hitch.

They may want you to pay a service charge or a membership in a travel club. If you are one of the few people who actually receive a vacation, you most likely will be booked into substandard accommodations. If a suspicious offer like this arrives in the mail, contact your postmaster or the nearest postal inspector.

Be suspicious if you receive a prize notification or other promotion asking you to call a 900 number. It could be a 900 telephone number scam, because there is always a charge for a 900-number call. Never call such a number unless you are sure of the charge. If you've never heard of the company, contact your local Better Business Bureau or consumer protection agency.

The Federal Trade Commission recently issued a warning that scammers, claiming to work for the Federal Trade Commission, are calling consumers and claiming that they have won a lottery or sweepstakes. They just need to send money to pay for taxes and insurance. Don't do it!

The FTC never collects money directly from consumers. But the public may be fooled, because by using Internet technology, con artists can make it appear that they are calling from Washington, D.C., where the FTC is headquartered. What's especially tricky is that the FTC's name may even be displayed on consumers' caller ID machines.

Here's how it works: Someone who claims to work for the Federal Trade Commission calls to inform you that you have won a lottery or sweepstakes. To receive the prize, all you have to do is pay the taxes and insurance. The caller asks you to wire money or send a check for an amount between $1,000 and $10,000. The caller might suggest that the FTC is supervising the giveaway. He or she might even use the name of a real FTC employee.

What should you do? Don't send money or account information, and immediately report the incident to the real Federal Trade Commission (FTC). No matter how convincing the impersonation, you should never send money to claim a prize. No FTC employee will ever call to ask you to send money. Legitimate sweepstakes companies won't either.

To file a complaint or to get free information on consumer issues, visit or call toll-free, 1-877-FTC-HELP (1-877-382-4357); TTY: 1-866-653-4261. The FTC enters consumer complaints into the "Consumer Sentinel Network," a secure online database and investigative tool used by hundreds of civil and criminal law enforcement agencies in the U.S. and abroad.

Magazine Hoaxes

Magazine hoaxes are other ways that criminals try to defraud seniors. Here are some things some things to watch out for:

  • Get all the details before you decide to subscribe. The cost may be described as "pennies a month" but you need to know the length of the subscription commitment and the total cost. Legitimate companies will give you all the details upfront and never insist that you act immediately.
  • Be cautious about unsolicited e-mails. They are often fraudulent. The best approach may be to not respond at all and simply delete the email.
  • Be wary of "free prizes." They're not free if you have to buy magazines to get them.
  • Know the cancellation policy. Some subscription services don't allow cancellations once they have placed the orders with the publishers.
  • Watch out for imposters. Crooks may pretend to be acting on behalf of well-known magazine publishers when they have absolutely no connection with them at all and will simply pocket your money.
  • Don't give your credit card or bank account information unless you're making a payment. There is no reason why the company would need that information for any other purpose.

Home Repair Rip-offs

If a work crew shows up at your front door saying that they're working in the neighborhood and notice your house needs repair, be suspicious. They may pressure you with a "now or never" offer and want a large down payment before any work is done.

Home-repair rip-offs are among the most costly senior scams. Always get a second opinion if you suspect your home is in need of repair. If you think the offer is a scam, get the name of the company and the individuals involved, write down license numbers and call your local police.

Following are other tips, from the National Consumer Law Center, to help you avoid home improvement scams:

  • Never deal with any door-to-door contractors. Talk with local tradespeople recommended by friends or reputable building supply stores.
  • Get a written contract describing explicit specifications of the work, the price (including details of any financing or credit terms), the responsibility for cleaning up, and the hourly rate for any added work. Ask for guarantees and other promises to be made in writing. Do not agree to final payment until the project is finished.
  • Remember the three-day right to cancel that applies to door-to-door sales and home improvement loans even after the papers have been signed.
  • Do not allow a contractor to begin work until financial arrangements to pay for the work are complete.
  • Never endorse the check over to the contractor before all work is satisfactorily completed.
  • Do not consolidate other debts with a home improvement loan.

Home Instead® employs CAREGiversSM to look out for the best interests of older adults by providing non-medical services in the home. CAREGivers are screened, trained, bonded and insured, and serve as advocates for seniors throughout the world.

If you need help around the home handling telephone and mail correspondence, and other activities of daily living, consider hiring a professional CAREGiver from Home Instead. A second set of eyes in the home often can thwart would-be criminals.

Last revised: March 24, 2011

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