Scam alert: Don’t let this happen to you

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WASHINGTON - Scams targeting the elderly not only are prevalent but they often go unreported.

These scams are devastating to the victims and often can leave them more vulnerable and with little time to recoup their losses.

In 2011, the Federal Trade Commission estimated that some 25.6 million adults were victims of financial scams, and some have been victims more than once. Nearly 50 percent of those who said they had been scammed were older than 50 and reported $1.6 billion in losses, with a median payment of $400 per complaint.

And the number of those scammed is likely higher since many victims do not report it or talk about it for fear of being ridiculed, or being judged as not being smart.

"The scammers target everybody, but they're more likely to get older people to respond because they answer the phone and they are not used to being tricked," said Abigail Kuzma, director of consumer protection for the Indiana Attorney General's office.

Ken Stewart, a trained volunteer who does community outreach in Chicago on how to avoid being scammed, said there are three key ways to escape this crime.

"Protect. Detect. Report," Stewart said in an interview with the Catholic News Service. "Never give your personal information, Medicare and Medicaid numbers to people you do not know."

He also stressed that law enforcement officials say they will never call people to make such kind of requests.

He also advises people not to carry their wallets or identification cards such as Social Security, Medicare or Medicaid unless they are going to the hospital, pointing out that once someone's wallet is stolen their "information is compromised."

Stewart, who volunteers with the Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Chicago's Senior Services, said scammers most often use the telephone to get in touch with consumers, accounting for 40 percent of all contacts. Email is used next, at 33 percent, according to a 2013 study.

"Older people are targeted for a variety of scams because it's a low-risk crime that is often not reported," said Don Blandin, chief executive of the Investor Protection Trust, an investor education organization based in Washington. "It's a great embarrassment, especially when people feel some cognitive loss and they don't want to be seen as vulnerable."

Scammers tend to appeal to elders' sense of civic duties or to appeal to their emotions to trick them. In some cases, the scammers offer elder financial or medical advantage; sometimes they threaten them with fines or bad news regarding their loved ones.

Another fraud - where people pose as law enforcement, government employees or relatives - also has been escalating and ranks as the fourth most common fraud across the country.

"'Detect' is the second important word that we talk about in our outreach," said Stewart. "We encourage everyone to always read their Medicare and Medicaid summary notice, which people receive every three months." He added, "It is a way to be aware of everything. If there is a service you do not remember receiving, call your healthcare provider immediately."

He said this habit will save people from fraudulent charges, which could prevent someone from receiving health care services when they need it.

For example, Stewart said an equipment company charged Medicare for a wheelchair on behalf of someone in Illinois who never received such equipment. Later, when the person was really in need of a wheelchair, Medicare refused to pay for it because they said that they already paid for one.

Stewart said that problem was solved, but it took some time to get to the bottom of it.

"You do not want to be in a situation like this," he concluded.

"Reporting is very important" said Stewart," This is the third component in our outreach. "We encourage consumers to do so," he said.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015