June 15 is Elder Abuse Awareness Day. In Ashland County, the entire month is Elder Empowerment Month. Have you ever wondered how to protect yourself or your loved ones from elder abuse, including fraud and scams? Here are some ways older adults can protect themselves from elder abuse.
1. Be aware that you are at risk from strangers — and from those closest to you. Tragically, 90 percent of all reported elder abuse is committed by the older person’s family members, often their adult children, followed by grandchildren, nieces and nephews and others. Common tactics include depleting a joint checking account, promising but not delivering care in exchange for money or property, outright theft and other forms of abuse, including physical abuse, threats, intimidation and neglect of basic care needs.
Everyone is at risk of financial abuse, even people without high incomes or assets. Understand the top 10 most common scams targeting older adults so you can spot one before it’s too late: Medicare/health insurance scams, counterfeit prescription drugs, funeral and cemetery scams, fraudulent anti-aging products, telemarketing/phone scams, the pigeon drop, the fake accident ploy, charity scams, tnternet fraud, investment schemes, homeowner/reverse mortgage scams, sweepstakes and lottery scams and the grandparent scam.
2. Don’t isolate yourself – stay involved. Isolation is a huge risk factor for elder abuse. Most family violence only occurs behind closed doors, and elder abuse is no exception. Some older people self-isolate by withdrawing from the larger community. Others are isolated because they lose the ability to drive, see, or walk about on their own. Some seniors fear being victimized in some way if they venture out. There are many ways you can stay active and involved in the community, including visiting the Council on Aging, going to the Y, or joining the SALT Council, which is a part of the TRIAD program.
3. Always tell solicitors: "I never buy from (or give to) anyone who calls or visits me unannounced. Send me something in writing." Don’t buy from an unfamiliar company and always ask for and wait until you receive written material about any offer or charity. Neighborhood children you know who are selling Girl Scout cookies or school fundraising items may be an exception, but a good rule of thumb is to never donate if it requires you to write your credit card information on any forms.
It’s also good practice to obtain a salesperson’s name, business identity, telephone number, street address, mailing address and business license number before you transact business. And always take your time in making a decision.
If you are being pressured to make an instant decision, it’s probably a good idea to just say no!
4. Shred all receipts with your credit card number. Identity theft is a huge business. To protect yourself, invest in — and use — a paper shredder. Monitor your bank and credit card statements and never give out personal information over the phone to someone who initiates the contact with you.
5. Sign up for the "Do Not Call" list and take yourself off multiple mailing lists. Visit www.donotcall.gov, the official national No Not Call registry.
Be careful with your mail. Do not let incoming mail sit in your mailbox for long periods of time. When sending out sensitive mail, consider dropping it off at a secure collection box or taking it to the post office, instead of leaving it in your mailbox for the mailman to pick up. You run the risk of someone else getting to it before the mailman does.
6. Use direct deposit for benefit checks to prevent checks from being stolen from your mailbox. Using direct deposit ensures that checks go right into your accounts and are protected. Clever scammers have been known to steal benefit checks right out of mailboxes or from seniors’ homes if they are lying around.
7. Never give your credit card, banking, Social Security, Medicare or other personal information over the phone unless you initiated the call. Misuse of Medicare dollars is one of the largest scams involving seniors. Common schemes include billing for services never delivered and selling unneeded devices or services to beneficiaries. Protect your Medicare number as you do your other vital personal information 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, and report suspicious activities to 1-800-MEDICARE.
8. Be skeptical of all unsolicited offers and thoroughly do your research. Be an informed consumer. Take the time to call and shop around before making a purchase. Take a trusted friend or family member with you to help you make difficult purchasing decisions. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Never allow yourself to be pressured into making purchases, signing contracts or committing funds.
Here are some ways families and caregivers can help protect their loved ones. Some signs to look for that may indicate they are the victim of financial abuse:
1. There are unusual recent changes in the person’s accounts, including unexplained withdrawals, new people added or sudden use of a senior’s ATM or credit card.
2. The senior suddenly appears confused, unkempt and afraid. Utilities, rent, mortgage, medical or other essential bills are unpaid despite adequate income.
3. A caregiver will not allow others to access the older adult.
4. There are piled up sweepstakes mailings, magazine subscriptions or "free gifts", which means they may be on "sucker lists."
5. Look out for new "best friends." Lonely or isolated seniors are vulnerable to criminals who befriend them and provide companionship. Ask to meet the new friend to find out more.
6. Watch out for unusual lifestyle or personality changes. After being scammed, older adults may be embarrassed and try to hide what happened. They’re often too proud to admit what happened.
Here are some other suggestions for what seniors and their caregivers can do.
» If you think you’ve been scammed, don’t be afraid or embarrassed to talk about it — waiting could only make it worse.
» Call your bank and/or credit card company.
» Cancel any debit or credit cards linked to the stolen account.
» Reset your PIN number(s).
» Contact legal services and/or the police department or sheriff’s office. Keep the phone numbers handy.
» For caregivers – find trustworthy helpers if you can’t be with your loved one regularly. Helpers could be neighbors, friends, relatives or faith community members. If you choose to hire professional caregivers, make sure they’re bonded and insured through an agency that conducts thorough background checks. You can call the Council on Aging for a list of local agencies.
You don’t have to be a senior citizen or a caregiver — all you have to be is a concerned citizen of any age that wants to be involved in prevention, protection and reporting.
Be aware of the possibility of abuse. Look around and take note of what may be happening with your older neighbors and acquaintances. Do they seem lately to be withdrawn, nervous, fearful, sad or anxious, especially around certain people, when they have not seemed so in the past?
Keep in contact. Talk with your older friends, neighbors, and relatives. Maintaining communication will help decrease isolation. It will also provide a chance to talk about any problems they may be experiencing.
Each one of us has a responsibility to keep vulnerable elders safe from harm. Let’s make sure we all take care of and look out for our Ashland County older adults.
Peggy Boales is the executive director of Ashland County Council on Aging. She can be reached at 419-281-1477.