Key Takeaways

  • Beware of phone calls that seem to come from government agencies—chances are, it's a scam!

  • "Free" tests or medical services are sometimes a way for scammers to steal your health identity.

  • Check your Medicare Summary Notice to see the services billed for were ones you received.

Whether it’s a telephone call from a government impostor or a promise of free medical equipment, scam artists continue to target older adults in an attempt to get rich quick. The U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging notes that current estimates suggest older Americans lose $2.9 billion each year to financial scams.

But you don’t need to be the next victim. Here are four tips to help detect and prevent financial exploitation.

1. Hang up on government impostors

It starts with a call from someone claiming to be from the IRS, or Social Security, or Medicare. Maybe the telephone number even matches the toll-free number for these agencies, or comes from a Washington, DC area code (202).

The caller tells you that your account is locked. Or they say you need to provide some information to get a refund or service, like your Social Security benefits reinstated. Or that you face possible arrest for unpaid taxes. It may be scary—but so is losing money to these fraudsters. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) notes that since 2014, Americans have lost over $450 million to government impostor scams, with those aged 80 and over losing the most—a median $2,700.

The best way to avoid these scams is to not accept calls from unknown sources.

The best way to avoid these scams is to not accept calls from unknown sources. Also, don’t call back numbers you don’t recognize if they have not left a message. If you do accept one of these calls, hang up immediately if you suspect it is a scam. A big red flag is if the caller requests payment via gift card or wire transfer or threatens arrest for non-payment. Be sure to report the call to your local law enforcement or register a complaint with the FTC.

2. Don’t accept offers of “free” medical equipment or tests

Medicare covers a range of preventive services and durable medical equipment (DME) at no/low cost to beneficiaries. But it’s important to remember that there are rules for receiving these services, and you should only accept them from trusted providers.

The Office of the Inspector General (OIG) of the U.S. Department for Health & Human Services reports that advertisement of free orthotics continues to be a popular scam targeting people with Medicare. Fraudsters may:

  • Call you directly to offer a neck/back brace
  • Send a postcard to your address with a toll-free number to call and place an order or
  • Advertise on television or radio to encourage you to order Medicare-covered braces by calling the phone number provided.

Similarly, scammers are exploiting seniors’ worries about dementia, cardiovascular disease, and cancer to offer Medicare-covered genetic testing. 

In both scenarios, the scammers obtain your personal information and Medicare number, which can be used to steal your identity and bill Medicare for thousands of dollars. While you may receive a back brace, test swab kit, or genetic report in exchange, these products will not be of the quality that you would receive from a DME provider or genetic specialist.

If you suspect this or other types of Medicare fraud, report it to your state Senior Medicare Patrol.

3. Check your Medicare Summary Notice

Relatedly, your Medicare Summary Notice (MSN) is a critical tool in combatting scams. The MSN is a notice that Medicare sends to beneficiaries every three months that explains what services and providers billed Medicare on your behalf, what Medicare paid them, and any amount you might owe. (If you don’t receive any services or medical supplies during that 3-month period you won’t get an MSN then.)

Be sure to check your MSN regularly to identify any suspicious activity, such as a bill for equipment you didn’t receive or from an unfamiliar provider. Contact 1-800-MEDICARE or your Senior Medicare Patrol if you do spot something awry.

4. Protect your identity

Anyone can become the victim of a data breach or hacking, even if you safeguard your personal information. Once scammers have your sensitive information, they can use it to open new lines of credit, file fake tax returns, and more.

There are several steps you can take to protect yourself, from freezing your credit to setting up alerts and monitoring your accounts. The Office of Older Americans at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) has published the guide Protect Your Identity: What Older Adults Should Know which includes helpful tips and can be downloaded or ordered from their site.

If you suspect you’ve already been a victim of identity theft, the FTC has tools at that allow you to report a theft and make a recovery plan.