Fraud schemes and scams aimed at older Americans are not unique to the digital age. They’ve been around from “the days of the medicine man,” as Dr. Ethel Percy Andrus, AARP’s founder, testified in 1963 before the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging. Since our founding in 1958, AARP has been in the forefront of arming consumers to fight back.
Medicare has been a favorite target of scam artists from virtually the moment the program was signed into law in July 1965. In the October 1965 News Bulletin, AARP was already reporting, “Swindlers posing as representatives of the Social Security Administration are attempting to defraud older Americans by offering them a ‘special discount’ on Medicare premiums if they sign up early and pay in advance.” Sadly, the victims were paying their Medicare premiums to crooks and not to the government.
To spread the word more broadly about fraud, in 1966 Dr. Andrus invited the former chairman of the Federal Trade Commission to write a series of articles for AARP’s magazine about trends in consumer deception.
In the early 1970s, it was estimated that such scams were costing Americans about $4 billion a year. In 1973, AARP launched a Crime and Safety Program to help older Americans avoid becoming victims of burglary, assault and consumer fraud. “This new program provides practical pointers to help older citizens cope with violent crime, achieve a higher level of personal safety, protect their property and develop working relationships with local law enforcement officials,” wrote AARP’s then-President Foster Pratt in Modern Maturity, the precursor to AARP The Magazine.
By the 1980s, AARP established a community service program, Criminal Justice Services, to focus on letting older people live independently in their homes and neighborhoods through safety and crime prevention activities. It brought together representatives from the International Association of Chiefs of Police and the National Sheriffs’ Association to try to define ways to help keep older adults safe from crime. The resulting triad united local law enforcement professionals, community leaders and AARP volunteers to focus on preventing criminal victimization, domestic abuse and mistreatment, and mail and telephone fraud against the elderly. The first triad agreement was signed in 1988 in St. Martin Parish near Lafayette, Louisiana. The model quickly spread to more than 800 counties by the early 2000s.
Estimated loss: $40 billion a year
By the mid-1990s, telemarketing fraud was becoming America’s most pervasive white-collar crime with an annual “take” estimated at more than $40 billion. A special 1991 report in Modern Maturity dealt with “Telefraud and Other Rip-Offs.” In 1995, a landmark survey by AARP on telemarketing fraud revealed that more than half of all victims were 50 or older — even though that age group represented less than a third of the U.S. population.
From 1995 to 1998, specially trained AARP members posed as victims while the Federal Bureau of Investigation and state law enforcement officials monitored calls the members received from con artists. The FBI’s dramatic Operation Senior Sentinel “sting” resulted in more than 1,200 arrests and hundreds of convictions of fraudulent telemarketers, who were selling everything from vitamins and water purifiers to vacations and sweepstakes packages.
‘Reverse’ boiler rooms
In the world of telemarketing fraud, a “boiler room” is an outbound call center where con artists conduct “sales” calls. In the 2000s, AARP and the AARP Foundation, in cooperation with various state attorneys general, staffed seven “reverse boiler rooms,” where trained volunteers contacted people whose names were on fraudulent telemarketers’ call lists seized by the FBI.
The potential victims were given information on how to recognize dishonest telemarketers and protect themselves from fraud and identity theft.
Fighting fraud on many fronts
Today, AARP continues the fight against fraud, providing Americans with reliable, up-to-date information about scams and fraud, and tips to avoid them. The AARP Fraud Watch Network, established in 2013, offers a number of free resources:
- A Fraud Resource Center with more than 60 tip sheets providing do’s and don’ts on common scams and fraud.
- Watchdog Alerts delivered by email or text message, on the latest scams and tips on how to spot them.
- A nationwide Scam-Tracking Map, where you can find the latest alerts from your state attorneys general and other officials, read what people are reporting in your state and report scams or suspicious emails and phone calls in your area.
- A toll-free Fraud Watch Network Helpline, 1-877-908-3360, whose trained specialists offer peer counseling, support and referral services to fraud victims and their family members.
- For more information, visit aarp.org/fraudwatchnetwork.