Aug 7, 2014

Good evening. I’m Susan Kohler, CEO of Missoula Aging Services, the Area Agency on Aging for Missoula and Ravalli counties.  Do you know what is considered the “crime of the 21st century?” It is the scam—any scam—that targets people age 60 and older. Because we’re seeing a recent upsurge of reports about financial scams from older adults, their families and retirement facilities, tonight’s commentary is focused on one prevalent type, the telemarketing scam.  I hope the story and tips I share will help you to not fall victim to this crime.   

According to the National Consumers League, nearly a third of all telemarketing fraud victims are age 60 or older. Why are older adults targeted so much?  It’s partly because they are thought to have a lot of money in their accounts. But scammers prey upon wealthy and low-income seniors alike mainly because older adults are generally too polite to hang up. These are not just older victims who are isolated or lonely—many are active people lured in by great-sounding deals.

The FBI reports that thousands of fraudulent telemarketing companies operate in the U.S., with an increasing number located in Canada and other countries targeting U.S. residents.  Types of scams reported in Montana lately include callers offering a year of free groceries, offering information that is already available for free, or purporting to be from a person’s bank . . . this in exchange for a name, birthdate, Social Security or Medicare number.

Here’s a recent example from right here in western Montana. A woman was contacted by someone she understood to be from the Department of Consumer Affairs, who said she had won $550,000. To claim the money, she only needed to send a cashier’s check for $1,000, which she did.  She was contacted again and told to send an additional $1050, and again she sent it. At that point the caller told her not to tell anyone. 

Weeks went by, so she called the number and left messages.  Finally she heard from the caller, who said the delay was with the security company responsible for delivering the money. They needed an additional $975 to guarantee she would receive the winnings along with all the money she had already sent.  She appealed to him about her limited income, finally telling him never to contact her again.

That is when she came to us for help. Feeling emotionally devastated by the experience, she did not tell her children nor contact a lawyer, but did allow us to report this to the Federal Trade Commission, as long as her name was not used.

This heart-wrenching story illustrates the financial and emotional impact such scamming has on its victims.  Let me share some important tips so that something similar won’t happen to you or someone you know. 

First, realize that telemarketers are hardened criminals who don’t care about the pain they cause when they steal someone’s money.  Simply do not answer the phone if you don’t recognize a number on caller ID, or let the answering machine take the call. If you do pick up the phone and the caller begins a pitch, hang up. 

Never give any personal information like address, Social Security number, Medicare number or bank account information over the phone. Legitimate companies and organizations will not ask for this information by phone.   

If an offer sounds too good to be true, it probably is!  If the caller pressures you for information or a response right away, hang up.  Don’t be lured by the promise of gifts, prizes, vacations and money if you act now.  If a caller continues to badger you, tell your adult children or call the Area Agency on Aging nearest you. 

Finally, if you think you’ve fallen victim to a scam, report it to the Federal Trade Commission.  Even if you file your complaint anonymously, you’ll be helping prevent the scammer from victimizing others.

These devastating crimes often leave victims very embarrassed and distressed.  Watch for the signs in an older adult in your life.  If he or she gets lots of calls from strangers or seems to receive a lot of trinkets in the mail, ask questions compassionately.  You may want to get support from his banker or the police.  Unfortunately, once scammers have personal information, including names of family members, they often appear persistent, sweet and patient.  It can take the support of family, friends and professionals to break their hold on the victim . . . or better yet, to not let it happen in the first place.

I hope the story of the brave woman who came to us has made you more aware of this “crime of the 21st century” and motivated you to do what you can to stop it.   

This is Susan Kohler, CEO of Missoula Aging Services, and as always thanks for listening.