October is Protecting Older Americans from Fraud Month, and with the U.S. Census Bureau projecting that Georgia will be home to nearly 1 million citizens older than 65 by 2010, the growing age group will have to filter through fictitious charities and investment offers to keep their nest egg intact.
Jim Baggett, an AARP regional volunteer leader who gives presentations on charity and home repair frauds, said older Americans are targeted for several reasons. "One being that we do have a little money to invest," he said. "We’re always on the lookout for a good deal."
Since some older adults have disabilities that keep them at home, often alone, they are more isolated from the community and are targets for fraud, said Ken Mitchell, AARP Georgia state director.
He also said that many retirees are interested in "catching up" with their finances and in investing money to make a quick return, and may inadvertently make poor investments.
Mitchell said older adults are typically lured into fraud through telemarketing phone calls asking for donations to non-existent charities, false sweepstakes award notifications, nonlucrative investment schemes and affinity scams, where someone they know is able to swindle them out of their money.
Telemarketing fraud alone costs Americans of all ages an annual $40 billion in the United States, he added.
He said that a common affinity scam in the South involves someone who appears to be selling bonds to fund church renovations, but actually skips town with older church members’ money. Other seemingly charitable efforts that harm older citizens in particular arise during episodes of natural disaster.
"There were numerous fictitious companies that sprung up to care for hurricane victims," he said. "Times of natural disaster manifest an opportunity for con artists."
Mitchell said that when tornadoes affected Georgia in recent years, some
unlicensed contractors visited senior citizens’ homes with promises of repair upon early payment, never to be seen again after thousands of dollars were collected from the area.
And older Americans who are unfamiliar with technological advancements, such as the Internet, are even more isolated and uninformed about identity theft and how criminals obtain their Social Security number.
"Because they’re not connected to the rest of the world through the Internet they aren’t as informed as to the local schemes or general scams that most people learn about when they open their e-mail," said Margaret Dawson, an investigator with the Gainesville Police Department.
Dawson said that older Americans without Internet skills do not have easy access to information regarding which companies or charities are real, and which ones are not.
"If it sounds too good to be true, then it probably is," Mitchell said. "There’s no such thing as a free lunch."
As if false promises of hitting the jackpot from illegitimate Nigerian companies and fraudulent investment opportunities weren’t enough to overwhelm the aging population, identity theft is emerging as a real threat to senior citizens.
"Identity theft is probably the newest type of fraud that older people are having to deal with," Mitchell said. "There’s so many new ways to gain access to people (who) unwittingly give out key information such as Social Security numbers."
To protect senior citizens from identity theft and Medicare fraud, Mitchell warns to make sure Social Security numbers are not on statements or checks that could be fished out of the garbage. All Medicare and credit card statements should be reviewed carefully, and if there are items purchased that were not ordered, be sure to report mysterious charges immediately.
Medicare and credit card companies will often remove charges if the incident is reported in a timely manner, he said.
Mitchell warns seniors to get information about companies and charities mailed to them in writing before they contribute any money.
The AARP also warns older Americans to be wary of Medicare drug discount card scams, so-called free trips, work-at-home scams, variable annuities seminars offering free lunches and of anyone asking for wire transfers, bank account or Social Security numbers.
To lessen the chances of older adults encountering fraud, Mitchell suggests putting telephone numbers on the National Do Not Call Registry by phoning 1-888-382-1222. And to report Medicare fraud, call the Medicare Fraud Hotline at 1-800-447-8477.
To prevent meddling dumpster divers who delve into trash cans for discarded bills or statements that may contain valuable information, Mitchell said many senior citizens are investing in shredders. He also said that it’s wise not to leave mail in mailboxes for more than a day. He advises older adults to appoint a neighbor or family member to pick up mail while away on vacation.
The Better Business Bureau encourages family members to look for signs that a loved one might be succumbing to scam artists. Signs might include frequent phone calls during daytime hours, excessive prizes received through the mail and questionable checkbook debits and credit card charges.
Mitchell said that seniors who are victims of fraud are often reluctant to tell family members about the incident because they might be embarrassed or afraid that relatives will perceive them as unable to manage their finances.
But it is very important that fraud is reported to the local police department as soon as possible, he said, so that some funds may be recovered and charges filed against criminals.
"(Scam artists) are very legitimate sounding," Mitchell said. "They’re very smooth ... and very clever."