: With Medicare open enrollment, ‘senior hunting season’ is about to begin

I got a call a while back from the fraud department at my bank. There had been some unusual activity on my account and they wanted to check some things.

The caller knew a lot about my banking and personal details — just the sorts of things my bank would know.

The caller spoke perfect English. The caller was personable, intelligent, engaged, and sounded like just the sort of professional you’d want on a customer service team.

(On second thoughts, knowing my bank, this alone should have tipped me off.)

I wish I could say that all sorts of alarm bells went off in my head. They didn’t. The call sounded just like many conversations I’ve had with legitimate call centers. It was only a matter of basic principle that caused me to insist on calling him back.

It turned out, as you may have guessed, that the call was a scam.

Financial scams have long since left behind the “Nigerian prince” days, when we’d get ridiculous, misspelled, ungrammatical emails from strangers making preposterous offers. (Though they are still piling up in my “spam” folder.) These days, many scam artists have become quite sophisticated — dare I say “professional” — and they are far from obvious.

And that’s even to someone who’s spent 25 years writing about all the ways con artists — legal and otherwise — scam honest people out of their money.

Among their favorite targets are the elderly. A popular tactic is the “government impersonation scam,” where they claim to be calling about, or from, Social Security or Medicare. Older people can be especially vulnerable: Not only because they may be isolated, have often left the office long behind, and may be suffering cognitive impairment, but also because so much of their financial affairs are now bound up with two gigantic, impersonal federal programs.

And as Medicare open-enrollment season — or “senior-citizen hunting season” — looms, an alarming new study finds that despite all the warnings, many senior Americans remain vulnerable and ripe for the plucking.

More than 16%, or one in six, elder Americans fell victims to a fake government impersonation campaign launched as a project by researchers at Rush University in Chicago and the Finra Education Foundation. Some 12% shared personal information, and 5% gave up the last four digits of their Social Security number. (Although, to be fair, we have to share this so often these days that I wonder how secret they remain.)

Researchers sent official-looking snail mail and emails to 644 seniors, and followed up with two phone calls. 

The subjects were chosen from participants in the long-running Rush Memory and Aging Project. The average age was 86 and about three-quarters were women.

The project pretended to be calling from the “U.S. Retirement Protection Task Force,” and said they were calling about unusual activity in the senior’s Social Security and Medicare accounts.

They got by far the highest response rate from the phone calls. 

The results could have been much worse. Happily, about two-thirds of seniors did the right thing when getting the phone call, emails, and letters through the mail: They completely ignored them.

But there are 56 million senior citizens in America, and 16.4% works out to be 9.2 million people. That’s a lot of vulnerability.

The Federal Trade Commission estimates about half a million seniors get scammed out of $1.5 billion a year. The AARP puts the loss figure much higher, at $8 billion. Nobody knows the real answer, partly because many seniors who get scammed are embarrassed and don’t report it. 

Victims aren’t helped by the attitudes of others, who say destructive and unhelpful things like “how could you be so stupid?”

There is nothing stupid about falling for these scams. They are increasingly slick professionals. These days our financial affairs are increasingly complicated, and so much of them take place online or remotely. It may feel plausible to get a call.

I didn’t spot the fraud immediately when they called me, and I write about this stuff for a living. I’m not (quite) as dumb as I look, either.

The psychological damage caused by these cruel scams is often worse than the financial cost.

Those most likely to fall for the scam were not older, lonelier, or more likely to be cognitively impaired than the others. They typically had slightly lower financial literacy. But the real standout is that they were much less likely to be “scam aware,” and were much less likely to have been victims of financial fraud in the past. Their trust was still intact.

The biggest vulnerability was to approaches by phone. Neither the Social Security Administration nor the Center for Medicare and Medicaid is going to call you out of the blue.

When the guy claiming from my bank called me, I said I’d call him back — and not on any number he gave me, but the number on the back of my bank card. Anyone getting a call from “Social Security” should call back — and use only the program’s national phone number (1-800-772-1213), or your local office’s number, which you can get from the Social Security website here. The Federal Trade Commission has a webpage of advice for seniors getting aggressive, and possibly scam, calls about Medicare. That’s a particular issue during the aptly-named “open season” (OK, “open enrollment.”)

“Never Join a Medicare health or drug plan over the phone unless YOU called Medicare,” it says. And: “If someone asks you for your information, for money, or threatens to cancel your health benefits if you don’t share your personal details, hang up and call 1-800-MEDICARE (1-800-633-4227) or visit medicare.gov.”

And there’s always the simplest, and most successful, strategy for dealing with phone calls from strange numbers. Don’t answer them.

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