COLLEGE STATION No matter how hard you work for your money, or how carefully you save it, there’s always somebody out there scheming to separate you from it.
“There are so many different scams and frauds,” and many of them target older people, said Dr. Judy Warren, Texas Cooperative Extension gerontology specialist.
To keep from becoming a victim of some of these con artists and scammers, Andy Crocker of Amarillo, Extension specialist in gerontology and health, offered some advice.
First, he said, develop a little healthy skepticism. Just because someone asks for your personal information including Social Security number, bank account number, credit card number, etc. doesn’t mean you have to provide it or that they have a right to it.
For example, Crocker said, some health fairs aren’t that healthy for finances. He said he knew of some of these events where people who offered free blood pressure screenings or cholesterol checks asked older participants for their Medicare numbers and Medicare was billed for these “free” services.
“People need to understand if something is free,’ it shouldn’t cost you anything,” Crocker said. And while there’s no need to be afraid of health fairs in general, “you shouldn’t (be charged) any kind of compensation or (have to provide) a Medicare number to get services advertised as free.”
Other scams that often target older people involve roofing and siding, garage door installation and other forms of home improvement; and medical equipment, such as special shoes for diabetics.
“Remember,” Crocker said, “if your doctor hasn’t prescribed it, you probably don’t need it.” And, he added, billing Medicare requires a doctor’s consent.
Very often, con artists will contact their targets by telephone. And that’s where many seniors fall victim, Warren said. “A lot of people may be susceptible to these kinds of telephone calls because this wasn’t an avenue for scams in the far past. There were more door-to-door scams instead. … We have a generation of people who are trusting; who still believe that someone’s word is their bond and that deals are made with a handshake.”
The National Fraud Information Center (part of the National Consumer’s League) has released figures that show almost one-third of all victims of telemarketing fraud are age 60 or older. And studies released by AARP (formerly known as the American Association of Retired People) show that many of these older victims don’t realize the telemarketer on the other end of the phone line is actually trying to steal from them.
This is where the healthy skepticism comes in, Crocker said. “If you feel the call is suspect, just hang up. … It’s not being rude, you don’t have to talk to them if you don’t want to.”
Warren agreed. “The older person needs to examine why they are talking to this person (the telemarketer). The idea of being nice is something older people were brought up with.”
When dealing with telemarketers, Crocker advised:
- Ask for the caller’s phone number. If it’s a local call, “you can tell if the prefix is from a cell phone or a land line,” he said. “If it’s a cell phone number, that should send up a red flag.”
- Try to get a physical address of the business making the call. If you can’t get such an address, notify the local Better Business Bureau, sheriff’s department or local police.
Warren said the Federal telemarketing sales rule does not allow telemarketing calls between 9 p.m. and 8 a.m.; requires telemarketers to tell up-front that they are selling something and the name of the company they represent; and requires telemarketers to remove a potential customer’s name from the calling list if that individual requests being placed on the company’s no-call list.
Warren listed some warning signals that the call is not on the up-and-up, including:
- The caller asking for personal information such as Social Security number, credit card number, checking account number;
- The caller insists an immediate decision must be made because the offer is good for a very limited time;
- The buyer is required to pay up front before goods are delivered;
- The caller’s story doesn’t quite add up;
- The caller gives vague answers when asked direct questions about the product or terms;
- The caller gets angry when asked direct questions; Some calls and/or products and/or services might sound more attractive than others. Warren also listed these “escape routes” for ending a call.
They are based on 1994 research done by Michael Friedman of Eastern Michigan University and funded by the AARP Andrus Foundation:
- If the salesman’s pitch sounds suspicious, end the conversation right then.
- Refuse the offer for the moment; give yourself time to think it over.
- Ask for written information about the product, offer and/or company.
- Refuse the offer all together refuse to pay any money, refuse to give any personal information and say you will call the authorities.
And, above all, if you do become victim of a scam, tell the authorities, Warren said. “Sometimes people who unknowingly get taken feel too stupid to try and get their money back. But they are not stupid, they are smart to get it figured out. And they need to follow through (by contacting the authorities) so it doesn’t happen to other people.”
Telemarketing calls are hard to avoid, but consumers now have a way to limit the numbers of such calls that come into their homes. Sign up for the Texas No Call List, which is regulated by the Texas Public Utilities Commission, Crocker advised. “For a nominal fee, you can limit (telemarketing) phone calls and cut down on fraud right there.”
To be listed on a statewide “Do Not Call” list which applies to any telemarketer calling residential phones in Texas the cost is $2.25 for three years. To be on an “Electric No Call” list which prevents calls to either residential or business numbers from Retail Electric Providers and telemarketers for electric service the cost is $2.55 for five years. To be included on both lists, the price is $4.80 for five years.
For more information call (866) 896-6225, or write to Texas No Call, P.O. Box 313, E. Walpole, MA 02032, or visit the Web at www.TexasNoCall.com
“The nation-wide list operated by the FCC and FTC operates much the same way only anyone can register, not just Texas residents,” said Crocker. “The federal program is free of charge and will enroll you on their registry for 5 years. You may register up to three phone numbers on the national no call list. This program also estimates about 60 days from registration for the calls to stop. Though the basic elements of both programs are the same, the Texas program is slightly more strict and comprehensive with regard to phone calls and will therefore still be offered.
“Will all the calls stop? No. Companies with whom you have an established business relationship will still be able to contact you as well as non-profit, religious, and political organizations. Also, if you request contact from a company, they will be able to call you. Again, this program is not meant to eliminate the calls entirely but to limit them.” For information on the national program, visit the Web at http://www.donotcall.gov or call 1-888-382-1222.
If you have been victimized by a con artist or a scam, contact the local county sheriff’s office, the local or state Attorney General’s Office, the Texas Office of the Inspector General at (936) 437-6714 (investigations division) or on the Web at: http://www.tdcj.state.tx.us/inspector.general/inspector.gnl-home.htm
And, Crocker advised, remember the old saying: “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.”