Older and Wiser

Dewey WebbMarch 1, 2014
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An ASU study reveals that new scams targeting seniors find fewer victims in the cynical Boomer Generation.

“I’ve fallen… and I can’t get up!”

Thanks to its unintentionally hokey delivery in a TV commercial in the late ’80s, that line has become one of the most memorable pitches ever linked to a senior moment.

But in light of an Arizona State University conference addressing consumer fraud issues facing the aged, that erstwhile punchline might be amended to “I’ve fallen for it!” – referring to the glut of schemes unscrupulous telemarketers and Internet con artists have unleashed on an increasingly aging population in the past several years.

The September confab, held at ASU’s downtown campus, was the culmination of a recently concluded two-year “Senior Scam” study conducted by the criminology department. The project involved phone interviews with 1,000 seniors over age 60 in both Arizona and Florida, two states with higher than average elder populations. The survey asked respondents how often over the previous two years, in their own estimation, they had been on the receiving end of attempted scams, and how often, if ever, they had taken the bait.

The study’s most eye-opening finding?

According to Kristy Holtfreter, one of the ASU professors who coordinated the study, today’s seniors – many of them newly-minted graying Boomers – are probably more canny and scam-resistant than the previous generation. “Certainly, everyone is at risk for what you might call an ‘across the boards’ consumer con,” Holtfreter says. But while seniors are no more susceptible than the general population, the study suggests that over-60’s are indeed targeted by con artists at a higher rate. She hopes the study will help senior advocates and law officers find new ways to alert the public.

Suddenly the subject of widespread media attention – in December, the Wall Street Journal deemed the issue an “epidemic,” claiming such scams bilked American seniors out of an estimated $2.9 billion in 2010 – consumer fraud targeting the elderly even supplied the plot line of the acclaimed 2013 film Nebraska, with Bruce Dern as a cantankerous senior determined to collect $1 million he believes he’s won in a magazine subscription sweepstakes scam.

Holtfreter points out many of the latest scams targeting the elderly now focus on victims in specific geographic pockets, such as Florida, where contractor-based cons involving hurricane damage repair flourish. The situation has reportedly escalated with the increased sophistication of hacking, Internet public records, online sales and inexpensive, virtually untraceable phone service.

The newest tacks in bamboozling seniors, Holtfreter says, include fraudulent mortgage scams, credit repair and advance fee loans, all cons feeding into the current economic climate. Another scheme plays into the increased prevalence of wayward grandchildren: A youthful-sounding person calls an older person and gives the greeting “Hi, Grandpa (or Grandma)! Guess who? It’s your favorite grandson/granddaughter!” When the grandparent offers a guess, the con artist assumes that role and asks Gramps to wire cash to bail him out of a jam, “But don’t tell Mom or Dad!”

But the ASU study belies the idea that most seniors are lonely, addled sitting ducks waiting to be suckered like so many Aunt Bees, ready to spew private financial data to the next friendly stranger who calls. After all, many of today’s seniors came of age in the ’60s and ’70s, not exactly times of high trust and genteel courtesy. This might help explain the study’s finding: While targeted more often, seniors were not scammed more successfully than the general population.

“Nearly six out of every 10 respondents were targeted by a fraud attempt during the year prior to the study, and two-thirds of respondents were targeted by a fraud attempt during the two years prior to the study,” concluded the report. “Fraud targeting… is more common in this sample… compared to samples of adults 18 years of age or older.” The report also showed the rate at which seniors were successfully ripped off (19 percent) was similar to the rate at which all adults are conned.

According to Holtfreter, the study’s practical conclusion is old-fashioned common sense for all ages: “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.”

Common Senior-Scams
Health Care Fraud: Perpetrators pose as Medicare representatives and call seniors fishing for their personal information.

Counterfeit Prescriptions: Seniors order prescriptions “at better prices” from scam websites, and receive potentially unsafe products, if anything.

Funeral Scams: Offenders scour obituaries for recently deceased people and contact their families posing as creditors to whom the deceased supposedly has outstanding debt.

source: National Council on Aging


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