Category Archives: Fraud & Scams

Seniors, Scams, and Identity Theft

November 28, 2018

Steven J.J. Weisman, Esq.

courtesy of NAELA News

By Steven J.J. Weisman, Esq.

What are some common scams that seniors can fall prey to and how can we help our clients?

Millions of older Americans are targeted as victims of scams and identity theft each year at a cost estimated to be $2.9 billion1 and this figure is undoubtedly smaller than the actual figure as older scam victims are less likely to report being a victim of a scam.2

Why Are Seniors So Much More Likely to Be Targeted for Scams?
To some extent, it may reflect the thinking exemplified by bank robber Willie Sutton who when asked why he robbed banks responded, “because that is where the money is.” So it is with many seniors who may have a lifetime of accumulated savings that provide a tempting target for scammers.

It has been thought that seniors might be more susceptible to scams due to being more trusting and two studies may have found a physiological basis for that opinion. A study by researchers at Cornell University published in the Journals of Gerontology concluded that naturally occurring changes in the brains of older people make them vulnerable to financial exploitation. The changes noted were in a part of the brain that alerts us when facing a risky situation as well as another part of the brain that controls the ability to read social cues.3

This deterioration of the brain can be and is exploited by scam artists, the only criminals we refer to as artists, who often appear to have a knowledge of psychology that Freud would have envied.

An earlier study done by researchers at the University of Iowa also found naturally occurring changes in the prefrontal cortex of the brain in the elderly that make older people less skeptical and therefore more likely to be victimized by a scam.4

In early 2018, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the largest coordinated sweep of elder fraud cases in history involving more than 250 defendants from around the world who victimized more than a million mostly elderly Americans at a cost of more than $500 million. The charges encompassed a wide variety of scams including telemarketing fraud, investment fraud, lottery scams, the grandparent scams, romance scams, IRS imposter scams, and identity theft.

Scams and Social Security
Social Security presents a launching area for a wide variety of scams targeting seniors. When the Social Security Administration (SSA) announced a 2 percent cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) beginning in January 2018, scam artists promptly called unwary seniors posing as representatives of SSA telling their intended victims that in order to receive their cost-of-living adjustment, they would need to confirm personal information including their name, birth date, and Social Security number.

As we know, this information is not required to be provided or confirmed for a person to receive their automatic cost-of-living adjustment to their benefits. Providing them to a scammer over the phone only leads to the senior becoming a victim of identity theft. Making the problem worse is the fact that scammers can use a technique called “spoofing” to manipulate their victim’s Caller ID so that the call appears to come from SSA.

The truth is that whenever you receive a telephone call, you can never be sure as to who is really calling and therefore we should teach our clients never to provide personal information over the phone to anyone who calls them unless they are absolutely sure that the call is legitimate and the information must be provided.

Another Social Security scam relates to the SSA’s helpful My Social Security Account online service, which allows you to set up a personal online account with the SSA that enables you to view your earnings history and estimates of benefits as well as manage your benefits online including changing your address or starting or changing direct electronic deposits of your benefit check into a bank account you may designate. This is a tremendously convenient service, but it also provides a great opportunity for scammers who have been setting up My Social Security Accounts on behalf of seniors who have not already set up such accounts for themselves. The scammers then make changes to the victim’s account by directing their benefit checks be sent to bank accounts controlled by the scammers. Even though the SSA requires verification of personal information by asking questions that only the Social Security recipient should know as part of the process for opening a My Social Security Account, too often this information is available to a determined identity thief who is thereby able to fraudulently open an account in the name of their intended victim.

In order to improve the security of the My Social Security Accounts program, the SSA is now requiring people to use dual factor authentication to access their accounts once they have been initially set up. At the user’s option, the dual factor authentication is done by the SSA sending a one-time code either to the user’s email or cell phone. Using an email address for dual factor authentication may prove to be problematic because it is not particularly difficult for a sophisticated hacker to gain access to someone’s email account. Even having the one-time code being sent to the senior’s cell phone can be risky when the scammer uses a technique called “porting” to have the victim’s SIM card transferred to a phone controlled by the scammer thereby having the one-time code sent to the phone of the scammer.

The best defense against this type of fraud is to set up a My Social Security Account for the senior with a strong username and password. For information about signing up for a My Social Security Account, go to https://ssa.gov/myaccount/. It is also helpful in setting up the account to require that any changes in the bank account into which the benefits check is electronically deposited only be done at a Social Security Administration branch office rather than through the online account.

Other Types of Senior Scams
The most common scams involving seniors are IRS impersonation scams, phony lottery scams, robocalls, tech support scams, grandparent scams, romance scams, and government benefit scams. Also, scams related to computer use by seniors are increasingly common. Educating seniors about these scams and how to avoid them is essential. Unfortunately, the limitations of this short article do not permit me to go into detail about how to avoid these scams.

Phony lottery scams, particularly the infamous Jamaican Lottery do, however, merit some mention. To a great extent these scams have targeted seniors. The scam begins with a telephone call from the scammer telling the targeted victim that he or she has won a lottery worth millions of dollars. The scammers convince the victims into paying huge amounts of money as administrative fees or taxes in order to claim their prize. Of course, there is no prize and the victims end up with nothing. While income taxes are owed on lottery winnings, no legitimate lottery ever collects the income taxes on behalf of the IRS; they either deduct the taxes from the prize or leave the matter of taxes entirely up to the lottery winner. Also, no legitimate lottery requires any kind of administrative fee in order to claim a prize.

Finally, the simple rule to remember is that it is very hard to win a legitimate lottery for which you have bought a ticket. It is impossible to win a lottery you have not entered.

Just Do the Best You Can
Presently I am a professor at Bentley University, but before that I taught in the Massachusetts state prison system where I met a student who was serving two consecutive life sentences, which meant that when he died he would start his second sentence. He told me that when he received his sentence, he yelled at the judge, “How do you expect me to do two consecutive life sentences?” to which the judge replied, “Just do the best you can.” And so it is with us. Nothing can totally protect our clients from becoming victims of identity theft or scams, but we can do the best we can to help them avoid these problems.

Citations
1 AARP. AARP Poll: Nearly One in Five Americans Report They’ve Been Victimized by Fraud.Washington, D.C: 1999. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3916958/#R2.

2 Pak K., Shadel D. AARP Foundation National Fraud Victim Study. Washington DC: 2011.

3 R. Nathan Spreng, et al., Financial Exploitation Is Associated With Structural and Functional Brain Differences in Healthy Older Adults, 72 The Journals of Gerontology: Series a, 1365–1368, (2017), https://doi.org/10.1093/gerona/glx051.

4 Erik Asp, et al., A neuropsychological test of belief and doubt: damage to ventromedial prefrontal cortex increases credulity for misleading advertising, frontiers in Neuroscience, July 9, 2012, https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fnins.2012.00100/full#h4.

About the Author
Steven J.J. Weisman, Esq., is a professor at Bentley University, and Of Counsel to Margolis and Bloom in Boston, Mass.

State regulators warn of deceptive Medicare marketing

November 27, 2018

NAELA News:

By  Star Tribune
OCTOBER 31, 2018

State officials are warning Medicare beneficiaries not to be fooled by deceptive advertising and sales offers during the current shopping season for health plans.

One of the big concerns is that beneficiaries recognize what information is coming from Medicare or a legitimate insurance company or agent, vs. information that might be from “a scam artist trying to steal your money,” the state Commerce Department said Wednesday in a news release.

Next year, a popular form of coverage known as the Medicare Cost health plan is ending across 66 counties in the state, pushing more than 300,000 Minnesotans to find a new health plan for 2019.

“We have had some complaints about potentially misleading advertisements and sales solicitations,” said Ross Corson, a Commerce Department spokesman, via e-mail on Wednesday. The department’s alert to consumers is “a preventive measure,” Corson said.

Open enrollment for Medicare health plans started Oct. 15 and runs through Dec. 7. It’s the shopping season for those losing their Cost plans, plus the general Medicare population.

There’s been a spike in legitimate Medicare marketing in recent weeks, as insurance companies try to woo seniors with Medicare Advantage health plans as well as Medigap supplementary policies that work with original Medicare. Carriers also have launched more Part D prescription drug plans, which also work in conjunction with original Medicare.

Commerce offered a series of tips for consumers.

“When looking for Medicare on the internet, make sure you go to the official website at Medicare.gov,” the agency said. “Don’t be fooled by private websites with similar addresses such as Medicare.com, Medicare.org and Medicare.net.”

Medicare shoppers should read the fine print and not be deceived by appearances, since some advertisements and sales materials may look like they are from Medicare. “If it is misleading in appearance, it may also be misleading in what it is really offering,” the department said.

The state agency said consumers should not believe any agent who claims to work for Medicare, or any advertising that claims to offer plans “sponsored” or “endorsed” by Medicare, which is the massive federal government health insurance program for people age 65 and older plus certain groups of younger people.

“Hang up on any phone calls, either live or recorded, trying to sell you a Medicare plan,” Commerce said. “Insurance companies and agents are not permitted to make unsolicited Medicare-related calls.”

Federal law is forcing health insurers next year to eliminate Medicare Cost plans across 66 counties in Minnesota. The elimination of these health plans is prompting an unusually large number of beneficiaries — more than 300,000 people in the state — to switch coverage all at once.

When the Cost plans go away, some enrollees will be steered toward a comparable Medicare Advantage plan from their existing health insurer. Cost and Advantage plans are similar in providing Medicare benefits via private insurers, but differ in how insurers get paid by the government.

Not all Cost plan enrollees will be steered to an Advantage plan, and those who are can make other choices. Another option is original Medicare, where consumers often buy a Medigap policy and a Part D prescription drug plan to supplement the traditional government insurance program.

A Star Tribune analysis in October showed the number of Advantage, Medigap and Part D plans is on the rise, although there tend to be more choices in the Twin Cities than in many greater Minnesota counties. What’s more, the Advantage plans have more limits on which doctors and hospitals are available to subscribers at in-network rates.

Minnesotans can call the state’s Senior LinkAge Line for free help in understanding Medicare choices at 1-800-333-2433.

People who think they have received a Medicare advertisement or sales solicitation that’s deceptive, misleading or a scam can report it to the Minnesota Commerce Department by e-mail at consumer.protection@state.mn.us or by phone at 651-539-1600 or 1-800-657-3602 (greater Minnesota).

Hang up on spoofed SSA calls

November 26, 2018

NAELA News:
by Lisa Weintraub Schifferle
Attorney, FTC, Division of Consumer & Business Education

If you get a call that looks like it’s from the Social Security Administration (SSA), think twice. Scammers are spoofing SSA’s 1-800 customer service number to try to get your personal information. Spoofing means that scammers can call from anywhere, but they make your caller ID show a different number – often one that looks legit. Here are few things you should know about these so-called SSA calls.

These scam calls are happening across the nation, according to SSA: Your phone rings. Your caller ID shows that it’s the SSA calling from 1-800-772-1213. The caller says he works for the Social Security Administration and needs your personal information – like your Social Security number – to increase your benefits payments. (Or he threatens to cut off your benefits if you don’t give the information.) But it’s not really the Social Security Administration calling. Yes, it is the SSA’s real phone number, but the scammers on the phone are spoofing the number to make the call look real.

What can you do if you get one of these calls? Hang up. Remember:

• SSA will not threaten you. Real SSA employees will never threaten you to get personal information. They also won’t promise to increase your benefits in exchange for information. If they do, it’s a scam.

• If you have any doubt, hang up and call SSA directly. Call 1-800-772-1213 – that really is the phone number for the Social Security Administration. If you dial that number, you know who you’re getting. But remember that you can’t trust caller ID. If a call comes in from that number, you can’t be sure it’s really SSA calling.

• If you get a spoofed call, report it. If someone calls, claiming to be from SSA and asking for information like your Social Security number, report it to SSA’s Office of Inspector General at 1-800-269-0271 or https://oig.ssa.gov/report. You can also report these calls to the FTC at ftc.gov/complaint.

For more tips, check out the FTC’s How to Stop Unwanted Calls and Government Imposter Scams. If you think someone has misused your personal information, go to IdentityTheft.gov to report identity theft and find out what steps to take.

Exploding hospice industry vulnerable to fraud, OIG says

September 10, 2018

The hospice care industry has ballooned in interest over recent years. But at the same time, nursing home residents and others receiving such care are often subject to improper care and fraudulent billing, according to a new government report released Tuesday.

In 2016 alone, Medicare paid some $16.7 billion for services to about 1.4 million patients. That’s more than 81% more than the $9.2 billion spent a decade prior to 1 million beneficiaries, the Health and Human Services Office of the Inspector General noted in its new report. About one-quarter of beneficiaries received hospice care in a nursing home or skilled-nursing facility in 2016.

Given those vulnerabilities — along with recent government actions against hospice providers, such as this one — the OIG took a closer look at hospice use dating back to 2005. Its investigator found vulnerabilities in the program, including that patients sometimes receive poor and/or unnecessary acre, and providers often don’t share crucial information to help nursing home residents and others make informed decisions. Hospices provided fewer services than outlined in care plans for 31% of claims for beneficiaries residing in nursing facilities, for instance.

“No one wants their loved ones to suffer needlessly in their final days. We need to improve hospice care for our mothers, our fathers, our friends, ourselves,” Nancy Harrison, deputy regional inspector for HHS and lead author of the report, said in a news release. “It is so important to have reliable information and good resources when you’re facing a terminal illness and considering hospice care. As it stands now, you have the least information when you are thinking about end-of-life care.”

In its 45-page report, the OIG also recommended several steps to fortify the hospice program. Those include strengthening the survey process to better ensure that hospices provide beneficiaries with quality care and necessary services; giving the federal government more authority to address poor-performing hospice providers; educating nursing home residents and their families about the hospice benefit; and strengthening oversight of hospice providers to reduce inappropriate billing.

The inspector general also suggested decreasing payment for hospice care delivered at nursing homes, which already provide some similar services.

Social Security Issues Warning About Scams Similar To Those IRS Phone Scams

July 20, 2018

with the permission of NAELA News:

It may be summer, but the bad guys aren’t taking a vacation. The Acting Inspector General of Social Security, Gale Stallworth Stone, has issued a warning about an ongoing phone scam from thieves pretending to be from the Social Security Administration (SSA).

upset senior woman with phoneShutterstock

As part of the con, scammers try to convince you to give up personal information, like Social Security numbers and bank account numbers, over the phone. In another case, a caller claims to be from “SSA headquarters” and asks you to confirm personal information, such as an SSN, “new” Medicare number, address, and date of birth.

Many of these calls are “robocalls” or automated calls. In one robocall version of the scam, an automated recording declares that your Social Security number (SSN) “has been suspended for suspicion of illegal activity,” and advises to contact a specific phone number immediately. The robocall or caller may also warn that if you don’t call back, your assets or benefits will be frozen until your alleged issue is resolved.

Robocalls from scammers pretending to be from government agencies, like the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), continue to be problematic. They are cheap and easy and allows thieves to reach the largest number of victims possible.

You may recall that a “Robocall Strike Force” was established in 2016 to develop solutions to prevent, detect, and filter unwanted robocalls. The task force was made up of communications companies including cell and landline service providers, phone manufacturers, operating system (OS) developers and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Members included such communications leaders as Apple, Bandwidth, Comcast, Google, Microsoft, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon. However, two years later, there doesn’t seem to be any real progress made to stop robocalls.

According to an FCC spokesperson, “This industry-led effort produced two detailed reports to the Commission and which were instrumental in laying the groundwork for both on-going FCC policy-making efforts and industry technological work. FCC work that used the Strike Force’s recommendations includes work to reduce robocalls to reassigned numbers, the new FCC rules allowing phone companies to proactively block calls that are likely to be fraudulent, and FCC work to encourage implementation of call authentication. The Commission continues to consult with a wide variety of stakeholders though there are no current plans to formally reconvene this group. Rather, the Strike Force’s reports served their purpose by spurring and framing on-going Commission and industry action to help consumer avoid illegal robocalls.”

The FCC has issued some tips for dealing with robocalls. They include:

  • If you answer the phone and the caller – or a recording – asks you to hit a button to stop getting the calls, you should just hang up. Scammers often use this trick to identify potential targets.
  • Do not respond to any questions, especially those that can be answered with “Yes.” (You can find out more about the dangers of saying “yes” to robocalls here.)
  • Talk to your phone company about call blocking tools they may have and check into apps that you can download to your mobile device to block unwanted calls.
  • If you use robocall-blocking technology already, it often helps to let that company know which numbers are producing unwanted calls so they can help block those calls for you and others.
  • To block telemarketing calls, register your number on the Do Not Call List.

(Click here for more from FCC on how to stop unwanted calls and texts.)

Getting a call from a Robocall, Retro red phone handset with a yellow sticky note and text Robocall
Getting a call from a Robocall, Retro red phone handset with a yellow sticky note and text RobocallShutterstock

In the meantime, robocalls and phone calls made by scammers and thieves continue to be problematic. It’s especially confusing because the IRS has repeatedly advised taxpayers that they will not reach out by phone to resolve taxpayer issues. However, SSA employees do occasionally reach out by telephone for customer-service purposes. Further, the SSA says that in “a few limited special situations” which are “usually” already known to the citizen, an SSA employee may confirm personal information over the phone.

The Acting Inspector General of Social Security, Gale Stallworth Stone, warns folks to be cautious, and to avoid providing information such as your SSN or bank account numbers to unknown persons over the phone or internet unless you are certain of who is receiving it. “Be aware of suspicious calls from unknown sources, and when in doubt, contact the official entity to verify the legitimacy of the call,” Stone said. The SSA advises that if you receive a suspicious call from someone alleging to be from SSA, report that information to the OIG at 1.800.269.0271 or online.

I would go a step further: When in doubt, assume it’s a scam. If you’re not sure whether a call is legitimate, hang up and call back using an official number (don’t just use the caller ID number on your phone since those can be spoofed). To reach IRS, call 1.800.829.1040. To contact Social Security, call 1.800.772.1213.

If you know that it’s a scam, don’t engage with scammers or thieves, even if you want to tell them that you know it’s a scam, or you think that you can best them. Just hang up.

Six Reasons Not To Engage With Scammers, No Matter What Your Facebook Friends Tell You

The IRS says that phone scams are still “a major threat to taxpayers.” In early 2018, phone scams held down the top spot on the IRS “Dirty Dozen” list of tax scams, and the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA) reported they have become aware of over 12,716 victims who have collectively paid over $63 million as a result of phone scams since October 2013.

Remember that the IRS will never:

  • Call to demand immediate payment over the phone, nor will the agency call about taxes owed without first having mailed you a bill.
  • Threaten to immediately bring in local police or other law-enforcement groups to have you arrested for not paying.
  • Demand that you pay taxes without giving you the opportunity to question or appeal the amount they say you owe.
  • Require you to use a specific payment method for your taxes, such as a prepaid debit card, gift card or wire transfer.
  • Ask for credit or debit card numbers over the phone.

For more tips on protecting yourself from identity-theft-related tax fraud, click here.

(Author’s note: Updated to include a statement from the FCC.)

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New Law Provides Free Security Freezes and Increased Fraud Alert Protection

July 18, 2018

with the permission of NAELA News:

PRACTICE TIP
Jeremiah Battle, National Consumer Law Center

On May 24, 2018, the President signed Public Law 115-174 into law. Section 301 of Public Law 115- 174 amends the Fair Credit Reporting Act, to establish a new federal right for consumers to implement a security freeze of their credit file.1 The freezes are free of charge. The new legislation is effective September 21, 2018.

A security freeze is the single most effective tool to minimize the risk of identity theft. Identity thieves often target unsuspecting older adults, luring them into giving out personal information. The scammers then use this information to steal the older adults’ identity and ruin a lifetime of positive credit.

As a general rule, security freezes allow a consumer to prohibit the release of their credit report. When
a thief applies for credit in the victim’s name, often the intended creditor will attempt to obtain the victim’s credit report or score. The idea behind a security freeze is that, when the credit reporting agency returns no information or a notice that the consumer has frozen the file, the creditor will deny the thief ’s application, thereby thwarting the thief and protecting the consumer’s credit reputation as well as the business interests of the creditor.

The legislation establishes standards for the creation, temporary lifting or “thaw,” and permanent removal of security freezes from the nationwide consumer reporting agencies. The security freezes are essentially limited to parties seeking the consumer’s information for credit purposes.

The freeze does not apply to parties who seek the report for employment, insurance, or tenant-screening purposes. It also does not apply to existing creditors or their agents or assignees conducting an account review, collecting on a financial obligation owed them, or seeking to extend a “firm offer of credit” (i.e., prescreening).

The legislation also preempts state security freeze laws and extends initial fraud alerts from 90 days to one year. A fraud alert notifies users that the consumer has been or may become a victim of fraud or identity theft. The legislation’s preemption extends to any state requirement or prohibition with respect to subject matter regulated by the statute’s provisions relating to security freezes. For example, some state statutes
are stronger than the new federal standards by allowing consumers to freeze access to credit reports for employment or insurance purposes.

Finally, the legislation adds section 1681c-1(j), which establishes standards governing situations where a representative of a minor or incapacitated individual seeks to freeze the individual’s consumer report.2

The new legislation should help older adults avoid identity theft. For more information on security freezes and state laws that are now preempted, see NCLC’s Fair Credit Reporting § 9.4.4.1 and Appendix H.

  1. 1  The FCRA is codified at 15 U.S.C. §§ 1681 to 1681x.
  2. 2  An incapacitated person is one for whom a guardian or conservator has been appointed.

The National Consumer Law Center provides legal professionals with advice on consumer issues as part of NCLER’s case consultation service. Through this service, Justice in Aging, the National Consumer Law Center, and the ABA Commission on Law and Aging provide free case consultations to legal and aging network professionals on a range of legal issues impacting older adults.

Please contact ConsultNCLER@acl.hhs.gov for free case consultation assistance. Sign up for our email list and access more resources at NCLER.acl.gov.