WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — From door-to-door sales for home security systems to unscrupulous air-conditioning firms, dishonest caregivers and even family members, the elderly are targets for financial abuse.
In fact, scams of all kinds against the elderly were listed as 2013’s worst type of consumer complaint by 40 consumer agencies surveyed recently by the Consumer Federation of America and the North American Consumer Protection Investigators.
‘’Scams against the elderly are especially egregious. In some cases it is taking advantage of people who may not really be able to manage their affairs very well. In other cases, even if you are dealing with a very alert older person, these con artists are very skillful at what they do. They will literally take the last dime of an older person’s savings without any qualms whatsoever,’’ said Susan Grant, director of consumer protection at CFA.
The problem isn’t new, but it’s growing and expected to get worse as the U.S. population ages, said Don Blandin, president and CEO of Investor Protection Trust, a non-profit devoted to investor education.
Some form of cognitive impairment affects one-third of people over 71 in the U.S., according to a 2008 Duke University study, Blandin said. About 20 percent of older Americans say they have been financially exploited.
In what is a sadly typical scenario, last year an elderly Florida couple received a call from a company offering to check their air conditioning. When the company representatives showed up, they convinced the couple to buy $2,600 worth of new duct work and an ultraviolet light sanitation system.
The couple had second thoughts and asked the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services for help in canceling the deal, but the company refused. Because the sale was concluded in the home rather than over the phone, the agency was unable to allege any violation of Florida’s telemarketing law, which it helps to enforce.
In another recent example, an elderly Palm Beach County couple agreed to purchase two UV sanitizing lights from an air conditioning firm that showed up for a routine service call. The couple wasn’t quoted a price and didn’t ask. The bill arrived for $4,000, and the couple paid it. Later, family members learned that the UV lights should have cost $300 each.
This type of needless expense could have been avoided if the couple had consulted family members and perhaps another AC firm before agreeing to the purchase.
The security system swindle involves sales people who falsely claim that their companies have bought out the contracts from the consumers’ previous security companies and that their systems must be upgraded, the Hillsborough County Consumer Protection Agency reports.
Before the consumers realize what is happening, a technician has ripped out their old system and installed a new one. When the consumers begin to receive two bills for monitoring — one from their old company, the other from the new one — they find out they have been misled.
By then the three-day period to cancel the contracts has elapsed, and the companies refuse to rescind them. The consumer agency was able to get refunds and consumers’ old security systems restored in some cases.
Other groups that have recognized the problem of elder abuse and are trying to do something about it include Investor Protection Trust, the Investor Protection Institute and the American Bar Association.
They’re launching a program to teach lawyers to recognize clients’ possible vulnerability to elder investment fraud and financial exploitation due to mild cognitive impairment, to identify such abuse and to report it to appropriate authorities.
Blandin said, ‘‘We know that a shockingly large number of older Americans are already victims of financial swindles and millions more are in danger of being exploited in such a fashion. Front-line professionals who deal every day with older Americans are ideally positioned to spot the impaired mental capacity that can leave seniors vulnerable to financial abuse.’’
Dr. Robert Roush, an aging expert at Baylor College of Medicine, said he is seeing more cases of lawyers committing financial exploitation also. Family members are the worst perpetrators, but the pervasive problem includes everyone from real estate agents to ‘‘preachers selling church bonds.’’
Tips for avoiding scams and swindles
Never sign blank insurance claim forms.
Never give blanket permission to a medical provider to bill for services rendered.
Ask your medical providers what they will charge and what you will be expected to pay out-of-pocket.
Carefully review your insurer’s explanation of the benefits statement. Call your insurer and provider if you have questions.
Do not do business with door-to-door or telephone salespeople who tell you that services of medical equipment are free.
Give your insurance/Medicare identification only to those who have provided you with medical services.
Keep accurate records of all health care appointments.
Know if your physician ordered equipment for you.
Protect your Medicare number as you do your credit card numbers, and do not allow anyone else to use it.
Be wary of salespeople trying to sell you something they claim will be paid for by Medicare.
Review your Medicare statements to be sure you have in fact received the services billed.
Report suspicious activities to 1-800-MEDICARE.
Don’t buy from an unfamiliar company.
Always ask for and wait until you receive written material about any offer or charity.
Obtain a salesperson’s name, business identity, telephone number, street address, mailing address, and business license number before you transact business.
Always take your time in making a decision.
If you have information about a fraud, report it to state, local, or federal law enforcement agencies
Be an informed consumer. Take the time to call and shop around before making a purchase. Take a friend with you who may offer some perspective to help you make difficult decisions.
Carefully read all contracts and purchasing agreements before signing and make certain that all of your requirements have been put in writing.
Make sure you understand all contract cancellation and refund terms.
Do not allow yourself to be pressured into making purchases, signing contracts, or committing funds.