New Weapons in the War on Telemarketing Fraud

To stem the tide of telemarketing fraud against older Americans, efforts may have to shift from self-help tips that elders have generally not heeded to community intervention and outreach programs that specifically target older people in their homes.

Vigorous public-information campaigns aimed at elders have not had much success. Phone-fraud costs have jumped from $1 billion 10 years ago to around $50 billion today.

In Seattle, the American Association of Retired Persons has marshaled "fraud fighters" at a model senior center. These 700 volunteers have identified all the vulnerable elders in the community.

"Next, we are going to be taking information out to them through these ground troops to get to people who are hard to reach and may already be targets of scams," says Doug Shadel, author of "Schemes and Scams: A Practical Guide for Outwitting Today's Con Artists for the 50+ Generation. "Most of the elderly do not understand how ruthless the marketplace has become."

In Massachusetts, 140 banks have agreed to join a statewide effort to train bank personnel in spotting the telltale signs of elder fraud. These are: sudden changes in spending habits of the elderly such as large withdrawals, implausible explanations for the withdrawals, or strangers or family members accompanying elders to the bank and instructing them. Retired people are more likely to do their banking in person.

Personnel will be trained to spot possible exploitation and take careful steps to help potential victims by referring them to community service agencies.

A teller, for instance, can ask an elderly customer who is about to make a large withdrawal, if he or she would like to read a "fraud alert" document in a quiet place. Tellers are also encouraged to know older customers and be familiar with their banking habits.

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