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Targeting the Elderly

posted by Keith Kilty

The elderly are increasingly the victims of various kinds of scams.  Older people – especially those who are poor – are seen as easy targets.  Telemarketing schemes often focus on the old through lists of names compiled by organizations such as InfoUSA, according to Charles Duhigg of the New York Times in an article headlined "Banks aid thieves in bilking elderly, feds say" (Columbus Dispatch, Sunday, May 20, 2007).

This "bilking" can occur in many ways.  It is most blatant in the case of individuals who find their bank accounts have been emptied out.  Even legitimate companies help.  According to Duhigg, "And major banks have made it possible for criminals to dip into victims' accounts without their authorization, according to court records."  But the elderly are taken advantage of in other ways as well.

Let's put ourselves into the shoes of an older man who recently got out of the hospital and needed to have some prescriptions filled.  He called the pharmacy only to find out that his drug insurance program under Part D of Medicare had been changed and that he had no existing plan at that time, according to the pharmacy.  A call to Medicare found that Medicare had been informed by another phone call – this one from an individual with a new plan - that he had decided to switch plans.  The man denied this, insisting that he had never signed any form authorizing a change.

However, the new plan said that he had, informed Medicare of that, and received a new contract number.  When the pharmacy was given that number, they were able to identify the new plan, which now provides his prescriptions.

The older man still insists that he never authorized any change verbally or in writing.  When the plan was asked about that, they indicated that they did have a signed agreement, but two weeks after requesting a copy be mailed to him for verification, he had yet to receive it.

Consider another example, that of a woman receiving Medicare services through the traditional Medicare program who recently found out she had been switched to an HMO under Medicare.  She also insists that she never signed any such authorization.

Apparently telemarketers or employees of drug plans and HMOs are calling elderly individuals to sell them new plans.  While Medicare does require written approval, it can make changes when called by organizations indicating that they have signed authorizations but without having to provide the signed forms before the changes are made.

Companies such as InfoUSA, according to Charles Duhigg, provide lists to telemarketers with identifiers such as "Suffering Seniors" or "Elderly Opportunity Seekers."  Many older people are alone, lonely, and often suffering from various chronic conditions.  They are ideal targets for telemarketers who can promise them anything, especially help with medical problems.  That sounds good to those on limited incomes who are struggling to pay medical bills.  One older man interviewed by Duhigg said that he was afraid not to give personal information to the telemarketer because he worried that he would not be able to obtain needed medications if he refused.

With the growth of prescription plans under Part D of Medicare, these organizations are apparently engaged in trying to steal clients from each other.  This is a disturbing trend and could lead to serious problems for many older people, including identity theft.

How such schemes work can vary from state to state, since many low-income elderly individuals are eligible for Medicaid as well as Medicare.  If their personal information is as easy to obtain as it seems to be, then many may find themselves mired in problems that will not be easy to straighten out, especially for those who are reluctant to advocate for themselves.  Many may also have problems in navigating through the phone menus that most organizations use to keep all of us from actually talking to a real human being when we try to contact them.  Those who are infirm or experiencing other incapacities will be at the mercy of the dishonest and the fraudulent.  Since programs like Medicaid are state-administered, the procedures may vary substantially from one state to another.  That will make it even more difficult for authorities to regulate – especially when legitimate companies participate indirectly and do not stop even when informed of what is going on, as Duhigg found.


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