10 Scams Targeting Seniors By Melinda Fulmer, MSN Money
Criminals who prey on the elderly are taking advantage of trust and naiveté. Recognize the top scams and know how to stay a step ahead of the bad guys.
Financial scams targeting seniors are grabbing a larger share of the headlines these days, as law enforcement and government, including the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, seek to squash this growing crime.
Almost daily, there's a new ploy that emerges, seeking to tap into the large amount of money older Americans have in their bank accounts.
"I call it the 'scam du jour syndrome'," says Bob Blancato, the national coordinator of the Elder Justice Coalition. "New ones pop up on a regular basis," often tied to local or national events, investments or the well-being of a family member...
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Annual losses from elder financial fraud jumped 12% to $2.9 billion in 2010 from $2.6 billion in 2008, according to the MetLife Study of Financial Elder Abuse.
One in 20 people ages 60 and older reported being the victim of some kind of financial abuse in the prior year when a survey was done in 2010. However, only one in 44 such crimes were reported, according to the National Adult Protective Services Association, a nonprofit. And of those that are reported, many are not investigated because of the difficulties prosecuting them.
In the interest of spotting scams before they happen, MSN Money asked some of the country's top experts on elder financial abuse to identify common scams and provide advice on protecting elderly people's assets. Here, in no particular order, are some of the most prevalent scams.
Grandparent scams. Often, scam artists prey on a victim's love for and isolation from their relatives. Many will call an older person, whispering "Grandma?" and mumbling so that the older person will volunteer a name. Once they've established an identity, they claim to have lost their wallet and/or passport in a foreign country or to have been arrested and in need of bail money.
Free lunch investment seminars. Most of these schemes involve selling people on unsound investments or other things they don't need, simply to earn high commissions or fees.
It might be worthless real estate, rare coins or investments that aren't right for people in a later stage of life.
Among the products that unscrupulous brokers are pushing at these lunches are variable-rate annuities, which are not appropriate for short-term goals.
What these investments peddled to seniors do have are high fees and charges, says Lisa Catalano, the director of the Securities Arbitration Clinic at St. John's University School of Law.
"I had a client who was told that putting your money in one (of these annuities) is like putting money into a checking account," Catalano says. "'You can take out your money any time,' he told her."
Many of these investments are sold by people with official-sounding designations that mean nothing and can be obtained by paying a fee.
Medicare fraud. Every U.S. citizen who is 65 or older qualifies for Medicare. Because it's universal, it's easier for con artists to target. In some of these scams, people pose as Medicare representatives to persuade older people to provide their personal information, or crooks provide bogus services for elderly people at makeshift mobile clinics in order to get their information, bill Medicare and pocket the money, according to the National Council on Aging.
Bogus sweepstakes. "Congratulations! You've just own $10,000!" In many sweepstakes scams, you get the promise of big money, but you have to wire some of your own to claim it, allegedly to cover things such as insurance, upfront taxes or shipping and handling fees. If you've truly won, you won't be asked to pay. And you shouldn't have to buy things to enter.
Dialing for dollars. Telemarketing scams change as often as news headlines, but some of the most common lures are charity scams, which can come in waves after a big local or national disaster.
Another popular call -- often made at night or early in the morning when people are off guard -- is the fake credit card call. This call alerts individuals to the fact that a card has been stolen or used in some way that has affected their credit score. The caller then tries to confirm sensitive financial information, including address, and credit card and Social Security numbers.
Unsolicited home improvement. An individual or pair goes door to door selling repairs that they claim are needed right away, such as a roof repair. Once the work is done, the victim finds that the bill is much higher than quoted or that the work was done with inferior materials. These repairs can lead to other types of theft, with workers going inside for a drink of water and stealing valuables.
Home loan scams. The two biggest scams making the rounds are loan modification scams and forensic loan audit schemes. With home equity virtually nonexistent for a large percentage of the population, scammers are targeting owners' cash, rather than title, says Annette Kirkham, senior attorney at the Fair Housing Law Project in San Jose, Calif. And often, they're going to senior centers to find their victims, she says. Loan modification crooks offer to help seniors renegotiate their mortgage and lower their payments for an upfront fee.. However, they usually take the money and do nothing in return.
Forensic loan audits require more money upfront -- often from $10,000 to $50,000. These audits are supposed to uncover fraud in the loan-origination process, thereby allowing the unscrupulous attorney to file a suit forcing a modification. However, that doesn't happen, and the individual winds up losing his money.
Power of attorney scams. These are the most insidious plots, because they typically involve someone close to the senior. They involve assigning legal authority to another person to manage someone's financial affairs. Sometimes it's done willingly; other times it's done by threats or intimidation.
In the hands of someone trustworthy, these documents can to help an older person manage his or her bills. But they are often used by desperate relatives and acquaintances to drain a senior's bank and investment accounts.
Knock-knock thefts. One of the most popular scams for decades running, these involve simple distraction and theft. Someone comes to the door, posing as someone they're not -- a utility representative, a law-enforcement officer or charity worker, for example. The idea is to distract the victim while the crook (or an associate) ransacks the house, grabbing cash or other valuables.
Sweetheart swindles. A younger person or alleged suitor feigns romantic interest in an older person long enough to establish trust and get his or name on bank accounts and property deeds. The suitor disappears along with the property.
8 ways to prevent elder financial fraud
1. Make it a policy not to buy from or contribute to solicitors. The Women's Institute for a Secure Retirement suggests using the following script with callers or people who knock on your door. "I never buy from (or give to) anyone who calls or visits me unannounced. Send me something in writing."
2. Shred all receipts with your credit card number or other personal information.
3. Never give out any personal information over the phone unless you initiated the call. That includes your credit card, banking or Social Security numbers as well as health insurance or Medicare information.
4. Use direct deposit when you can to prevent checks from being stolen.
5. Know where your documents are kept and what they say. Stay organized and make sure what the literature says jibes with what brokers or representatives are telling you.
6. Check out your broker, and never make a check out to an individual for investments. Write checks out to a company or firm to make sure your money is going where it's supposed to go. You can check out brokers and their firms on securities regulator FINRA's BrokerCheck page.
7. Don't isolate yourself. Maintain connections with others in your community, such as friends, neighbors, clergy or even your letter carrier, so you have people with whom you can share your complaints or suspicions.
8. Hire an elder law attorney. If you work with lawyer, make sure he or she is a member of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys, who have special training in legal issues facing seniors.
And if you suspect that you or a loved one is a victim, experts recommend calling Adult Protective Services immediately.
"The most important message that should come out of this is that you can't stop what you don't report," Blancato says..