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Scams (part 1)

Author: Helen Dennis, Specialist on Aging

Question. Recently some home-repair men were in my neighborhood and told me they would inspect my roof free of charge.  Since the roof is old, I thought the check-up was a good idea.  They found a problem and proceeded to repair it– I thought.  In our last rain storm, I was shocked when water dripped into my dining room.  I had to hire another repair man who told me the tiles had just been rearranged.  I am 82 years old and feel I was taken advantage of because of my age and perhaps the age of my house.  What can be done about this?  A.P.

Dear A.P.:

Unfortunately you have been the object of what is called “home-repair swindle,” a term used by Douglas P. Shadel and John T.  Shadel was a fraud investigator for ten years with the Washington office of the State Attorney General.  His co-author John T. was an expert on scams, spending a decade as one of the most notorious con artists in telemarketing fraud.

In their book “Schemes & Scams” they write that con artists focus on geographic areas where there is a high concentration of older adults.  And yes, they tell the older person that the roof needs major repair.  They often say they have left over material from a previous job and could do the work just for the cost of labor.  Typically the job is overpriced or the work isn’t done or it is poorly completed.

How to prevent this?  Don’t hire a contractor who knocks on your door wanting business.  This is not the usual way legitimate contractors operate.   And, get two other opinions about the condition of your roof.

There are many reasons older adults are victims according to geriatrician Dr. Christine Hines, co-author of “Aging in Stride.”

  • Older adults tend to spend time at home during the day.  If they don’t have a full schedule, they have more time to listen to sales calls.
  • Crooks target older adults because “that’s where the money is.” Retirees have income and usually some money in the bank.
  • They also are part of a generation of good manners and civility and are less like turn away sales people.
  • Many older adults are lonely.  Just knowing that someone is interested and appears to care is enticing and can be dangerous.

There are others reasons.  Psychologists at Washington University in St. Louis report that older adults are easily swayed by the power of suggestion. In a study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, researchers Larry Jacoby and colleagues found that older adults (average age 74) are 10 times more likely to remember (and believe) false information than younger adults (average age 19).

For example, a dishonest contractor could tell an older customer that a job costs more than the originally quoted price.  With no written estimate, the older adult might believe this second false estimate or even think that the two estimates were the same.  The second estimate typically would be higher, and the older adult would be overcharged.

In another study, Stacey Wood, a neurophysiologist at Scripps College in Claremont, presented negative and positive images to both younger and older adults.  The negatives images included photos of dead animals; the positive ones included images of bowls of ice cream.  By recording brain activity, researchers found that the young and old responded differently to these images. Older adults were less affected by the unpleasant information.  The researchers suggested this might be one reason why older adults may miss the “unpleasant” red flag of a skilled scammer.

I’d like to offer another perspective.   ereHereHOlder adults have lived through a lot and have survived. They know how to cope under difficult circumstances of poor health, inadequate finances, wars, depression and uncertainties.  Yet they thrive.  Perhaps older persons have perfected the ability to identify what is important in life and to avoid the negatives.  Screening out the bad news and only focusing on the good may add to one’s quality of life.  It can also make one miss the danger signals of a scammer.

Reporting scams is important.  For fraud related to home improvement, contact your local police department.

A.P., thank you for your good question.  To keep all of us on the alert, next week I’ll write about the 10 top scams targeting older adults.  The most devious is the grandparent scam.

Copyright 2011 Helen Dennis. All rights reserved.

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