How Can I Protect an Older Family Member From Telemarketing Scams?

A fellow caregiver asked...

How can I protect an older family member from telemarketing scams?

Expert Answer

Barbara Repa, a senior editor, is an attorney, a journalist specializing in aging issues, and the author of Your Rights in the Workplace (Nolo), now in its 10th edition.

You're right to be concerned about telemarketing scams. The U.S. Department of Justice estimates that dishonest telemarketers take in an estimated $40 billion each year, bilking one in six American consumers -- and the AARP claims that about 80 percent of them are 50 or older. Older people -- especially older women living alone, who are often pegged as being the most lonely, polite, and trusting -- are the top targets for telemarketing scammers. And the fraud may be self-perpetuating, since scam artists often work from "sucker lists," which they buy and sell among themselves, that contain contact and purchasing information about those who've participated in past telemarketing solicitations.

But there are a number of steps you can take to help thwart telemarketers' tricks.

Inform. Telemarketing scams are distinct from most other crimes because they require the victim's cooperation to succeed. The best protection is to warn the person not to give out or confirm a Social Security number, credit card number, checking account number, or any other personal information, and not to buy anything over the phone. It's also important to help anyone you're concerned about to recognize the difference between legitimate offers and fraudulent ones.

Common signposts of scams against seniors include:

  • "Free prize" offers that require the alleged winners to do or buy something or that include a registration or shipping fee -- usually requesting a credit card number and other personal information in the process.

  • Pleas to put money in a foreign lottery or an investment that promises high return and little risk.

  • Requests for donations from so-called charities that aren't able to provide written information to review or don't give time to check out their registration with the state securities regulator.

  • Claims of medical discounts, often touted as a club or membership -- again requiring credit card and other information to enroll.

  • The offer of an extended warranty for a car or other valuable property, often made with inside information about the make and model the person has purchased in the past.

  • Insistence that a payment must be made with cash.

Reputable companies will not force a hasty and uninformed sale of their goods or services, and they'll provide consumers with the time and information needed to make a wise and considered decision. Also note that a federal law, the Telemarketing Sales Rule, requires that telemarketing calls be restricted to the hours between 8 a.m. and 9 p.m.; any call received earlier or later is illegal and should be reported to the Federal Trade Commission, at 888-382-1222 or 866-290-4236 (TTY).

Install caller ID equipment. Get the person a phone equipped with caller ID and program in the names and numbers of family and friends. Then coach the person to make good use of the system by not picking up for unrecognized callers; those calls can be recorded as messages -- and many telemarketers don't bother leaving them. Some telephones have spoken caller ID in addition to the visual prompt, which can be a real boon for some elderly users.

Rehearse. Pay a visit to the person's home and rehearse a polite but direct response to give telemarketers who do get through, such as, ""Thanks, but I'm not interested. Please take me off your calling list. Good-bye."

Remind. Print the rehearsed script and post it above, on, or near the phone as a reminder.

Place the number on the Do Not Call Registry. Make sure the person's phone numbers, including cell phone numbers, are registered. You can do this online with the national Do Not Call Registry or by calling 888-382-1222 or 866-290-4236 (TTY). You must call from the number that you want registered. This free government service, managed by the Federal Trade Commission, allows consumers to proactively limit the telemarketing calls they receive. Most telemarketers must stop calling within 31 days after a phone number is registered. The protection provided by registering is permanent, although you may need to reregister numbers that have been disconnected and reconnected.

Also warn the person not to be taken in by websites or phone solicitors claiming they can or will register a consumer's name or phone number on the Do Not Call Registry -- often for a fee. Consumers may register directly, or through some state governments, but never through private companies.

Ask to be removed from the call list. While putting a number on the national Do Not Call registry usually stops most calls, some types of callers aren't covered by the service. They include political organizations, charities, telephone surveyors, and businesses expressly authorized to call or with which there is an existing relationship. However, a company that is asked to place the number on its own internal Do Not Call List must honor your request. It's wise to keep a record of the date the request was made -- and, if possible, a name to contact should unwanted calls persist.