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Those pesky Robo Calls and Elder Exploitation

Robo calls and elder exploitation

By Marylee Gorham

I don’t pay a whole lot of attention to my mobile phone in terms of actual calls since texting is an easier, faster, more efficient way to communicate. However, when someone has tried to reach me lately, invariably they are frustrated with the all too frequent message “voice mailbox is full.” Annoyingly, I am clearing out unwanted messages at least twice a week.  I believe 99% of these calls are robo calls.

Robo calls were on the decline in the early months of the pandemic, but folks, they’re back in full force overtaking their pre-Covid peak with an estimated 4.9 billion robo calls in March 2021 alone. Half of them are being placed by scammers. Seniors are a primary target for these calls and lost $1 billion in 2020, according to the FBI.

The pandemic had some unimaginable consequences, one was the surprising drop in robo calls early on in 2020. In April 2020, by all accounts, less than 3 billion dubious calls were made – the lowest figure in two years.  As we’ve all become used to working from home however, spam and scam calls have begun to increase, soaring to unprecedented numbers in 2021.

According to robo call prevention service YouMail, 1,911 calls per second or 159 million calls per day were logged in March 2021! This company estimates we will have received north of 51 billion unwanted calls by the end of this year!

Telemarketing spam, automated calls from companies you haven’t authorized to contact you, prerecorded messages dangling goodies or those that demand payment for non-existent debt, all have the singular goal of getting you to send money or disclose sensitive personal data.

It’s important to note that many robo calls are legal. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) allows them for some informational or noncommercial purposes, such as political campaigning, polling, and outreach by nonprofit groups. Your medical provider’s office can robocall you with an appointment reminder, an airline with news about a flight change, even weather alerts – it’s all perfectly legal.

Congress has passed a law attempting to put an end to robo calls, but it hasn’t been very effective so far, due to loopholes. The Federal Communications Commission and the Federal Trade Commission identified them as the top complaint in 2020.

How is it that telemarketing is even legal?

Telemarketing – by definition a soliciting business sales contact by means of a phone call – is legal, provided the telemarketer complies with the law, including the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) Consumer Protection Act. You might be surprised to learn that the Act prohibits:

  • Calling before 8.00a.m. or after 9 p.m.
  • Robocalling without your prior written consent
  • Calls that don’t identify the caller, who they’re calling on behalf of, and contact information for such person
  • Robocalling without an opt-out mechanism
  • Calls to anyone on the Do Not Call Registry (other than exempted calls).

Agencies and other entities that will never call you

Vigilance and mental dexterity are required when fielding these calls. Scammers are able to mask their true location using technology that engages ID spoofing, which is when the number looks legitimate and may appear its coming from a local source within your own area code. It isn’t.

Government agencies such as the Internal Revenue Service or Social Security Administration will NEVER call you. Any communication from these agencies will ALWAYS be in the form of a letter, on official letterhead, received by regular mail.

Lately scammers have created fraudulent calls centered around “the attorneys have negotiated a settlement for your unsecured debt” and phony calls for confirmation for your order for Walmart or Amazon. With online shopping exploding during the pandemic, you might find yourself thinking twice about this particular scam.

My personal favorite: [there is] a warrant for my arrest due to fraudulent activity on my Social Security.  Press 1 now to speak to us blah, blah, blah. I say, send the Sherriff’s over right away, let’s see what happens next!

How Do Scammers Get Your Number in the First Place

Most telemarketers purchase phone numbers from third party data providers. Here’s how those providers may have procured your number, according to the Better Business Bureau:

  • You called an 800, 888, and/or 900 number (they use caller I.D. technology and collect phone numbers)
  • You applied for credit
  • You contribute to charities
  • You are a registered voter
  • You bought anything, or entered any contest, and gave your phone number in the process
  • Your phone number is on your checks.
  • You call a business, and they have caller I.D. (which, you should assume they do).

“Can You Hear Me” & “Is this you?” and other trick questions

According to Eva Velasquez CEO & President of Identity Theft Resource Center advises caution when answering that first question. “By getting you to answer ‘yes’ to that one question at the very beginning of the call, rather than somewhere in the middle of the conversation, where dubbing would be more obvious – scammers can record your affirmative answer.”  A recorded ‘yes’ can be used to extort payment for a product or program later on, or to authorize transactions on a credit card. Likewise: “Is this the lady of the house” (?) “Are you there (?)”, and other leading questions that could elicit a one-word response; your best strategy quite simply is to hang up.

Our elder population may be especially vulnerable to such calls.

Changes to the brain

Such terms as “age-associated financial vulnerability” or AAFV have been coined by eminent doctors in the realm of neuropsychology. Mark Lachs, a practicing physician at Weill-Cornell Medicine in New York has written:

AAFV as a pattern of financial behavior that places an older adult at substantial risk for a considerable loss of resources such that dramatic changes in quality of life would result and that is inconsistent with previous patterns of financial decision making during younger adult life. This condition can occur in the absence of dementia or other neurodegenerative diagnoses and may or may not be the presenting manifestation of such illnesses.”

The theory that as we age, regardless of cognitive disease, our ability to detect suspicious situations may decline.  We may become prone to seeing the upside of a ‘too good to be true’ deal and downplay the risk. Elders may be inclined to believe the last person they spoke to, overly trusting of a persuasive voice or worse, ill-equipped to deflect high-pressure telephone predation. Social isolation and loneliness further set up our elders for exploitation, not to mention, they may be in possession of substantial assets. Older folks are more likely to live alone, without a strong local support system to act as a second set of eyes and ears, seniors can be lured into financial traps.

Older adults have comparatively more wealth than younger generations, and make up a massive demographic most attractive to criminals intent on fleecing seniors of their hard earned retirement funds. The number of people aged 65 and older will nearly double in the next 30 years, making up one in five of the US population. One gerontologist put it this way: abuse of the elderly is, at its core, lack of social support. The cure is social support. The best way to help vulnerable loved ones is just to be there, to be present in their lives.

Elders of a certain generation who came of age during the Great Depression and World War II may be less skilled at navigating the Internet and determining scams perpetrated via this platform – and scammers are ever more technologically sophisticated.

One particularly high-profile conviction involved a spectacularly odious fellow from Jamaica who unwittingly targeted a seemingly frail 90 year old, who just happened to be the former head of the FBI and the CIA, William Webster, with the promise of fake sweepstakes winnings.

Scientist now are focused on the physical changes in the aging brain related to financial vulnerability. In some cases new emerging patterns of mistakes with money may be a harbinger of cognitive decline. Nathan Spreng, a neuroscientist at McGill University, has been conducting research linked to scamming and the elderly. His two groups of 13 elders of similar age, education and socioeconomic standing looked at who had been victimized by a successful scam and who had not. Interestingly their brain scans were markedly different. Says Spreng:

“When we looked at the structural integrity of their brain, we identified one region in particular that was significantly smaller in those individuals who had been scammed than those who had not. A thinning of the part of the brain called the ‘insula’ which gives you this body sense of the perceptions of the environment that something’s not quite right and it’s a signal that all of us in life kind of need to learn how to listen to. In the case of aging, that signal just isn’t as loud.”

In an award-winning paper published by the Brookings Institution, researchers identified a peak age for handling money matters: on average it’s 53 years old.

Of course, this AAFV scenario doesn’t necessarily mean all of us as we age will suffer.  Plenty of older folk are just as sharp as they were in the 20s and 30s and indeed, many seniors have that edge over their younger selves, shall we chalk that up to wisdom {?} or as I like to quote Kathy Bates in the film Fried Green Tomatoes, “I’m older, and I have more insurance!” Financial acumen and scam-spotting really are complex matters. Gullibility to scams does cross all generations but we would do well to do all we can to protect our elder loved ones.

Set up a Financial Plan for the Future

Robo calls and elder exploitation

Make a plan early before decline becomes apparent and crisis is not looming on the horizon.   Decisions made while fully competent include designation of Power of Attorney – that trusted person who will be the driver for money matters if and when that becomes necessary. Likewise making accommodations for one’s Durable Power of Attorney for HealthCare and Advance Directives can also block would-be scammers at a time of exquisite vulnerability.

The Foundation for Healthy Communities planning guide is a great resource to access appropriate documents without attorney fees. Look at for details.