The conversation starts innocently enough, "Hello, our records show that your doctor has ordered a medical alert system for you…" But the intent of this cleverly-concealed scam is far from benign.

It began last summer, when seniors across the country started receiving calls that their family/friend/doctor had ordered a personal emergency response system (PERS) for them. A representative pleasantly promises prompt delivery of the "free" system, as long as the elder can provide a few identifying pieces of information—address, credit card number (the system itself is free, but allegedly comes with a monthly monitoring fee), social security number, etc.

"It was one of the most amazing versions of the robocall scam I've ever heard," says Deb Citrin, senior director of business development at Philips Lifeline, a medical alert service company. Philips was one of the companies recently impersonated by scammers using offers of free PERS to steal older Americans' identities. Though Citrin has spent nearly two decades in the medical device field, she admits to being caught off-guard when she received a robocall hawking a no-cost medical alert system to her home phone, "It really felt as if a live sales agent was talking to me."

The recording had a conversational cadence and contained natural pauses and background sounds, all of which added to its air of authenticity. When Citrin was asked to, "Press '1' to set up delivery," of the alert system, her suspicions mounted. Only after she threatened to phone the state attorney general did the robocall scam system hang up.

Telemarketing scam steals millions from seniors

Robocalls aren't the only sources of financial phone fraud aimed at the elderly. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) just filed a federal lawsuit against the alleged ringleader of a multi-country con that stole more than $20 million from older consumers over the course of two years.

A group of untrue telemarketers impersonating legal representatives, government officials and bank employees cold-called older adults to con them into handing over personal bank account information to pay for false pharmaceutical benefit services, fraud protection and legal protection.

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The lawsuit is ongoing, but the scam has been stopped and the defendants' assets have been frozen.

Elders are alluring targets for fraudsters

Scammers often target older adults—whose lack of technological savvy and increased chances of cognitive impairment make them easier prey. "The senior population tends to be more vulnerable, trusting and charitable, and many depend on others for care," says Citrin. "The conversational pace of these robocalls can be so confusing, and a senior doesn't want to show they are confused,so they just say ‘yes,' which sets them up to victimized by these scams."

Thankfully, there are a few simple ways to spot a false phone call:

  • They ask for identifying information: Some scammers may be blatant when requesting identifying information (e.g. Social Security number, home address), while others will take a softer approach, saying: "Could you confirm some information so I can check it against my records?"
  • They won't let you call back: A reputable organization should be able to provide you with information on a physical address and a callback number. If your request for this information is met with resistance, it's a sign that the individual on the other line may not be trustworthy.
  • They request a credit card number: Anyone who asks for payment information—such as a credit card or bank account number—upfront is likely a scammer.
  • They attempt to create a feeling of urgency: "Be sensitive to high-pressure sales tactics. Your intuition should reign supreme," says Citrin. Fraudsters often use words or phrases meant to create a sense of urgency. They prey on a consumer's fear of missing out on a great deal, or—as is the case with the PERS scams—a senior's anxiety over what will happen to them in an emergency if they don't purchase an alert system.

The National Do Not Call Registry offers consumers the chance to register their home and mobile phone numbers so they don't receive telemarketing calls. But, while a place on this list ensures that the majority of reputable telemarketers won't call you, it can't insulate you against scammers, who typically dial random telephone numbers until they get someone to pick up.

Awareness is key when it comes to mitigating the effects of cons targeting seniors. If you or your loved one receives a suspicious robocall, it's essential that you immediately report it to the proper authorities so steps can be taken to stop the fraudsters. The FTC's Complaint Assistant offers consumers the ability to file a complaint online, or over the phone (1-877-FTC-HELP).