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Recently, I was sitting with my dad while he was waiting to be discharged following a short hospital stay. It was Friday afternoon, and while we were waiting for the nurse to go over his paperwork, the phone rang in his room. He answered the phone.

After a few moments, he said, “I’m not able to help you at this time,” and hung up the phone. He looked over at me and shook his head.

It was a telemarketer.

Calling his hospital room.

Spam and scams

If you think you are getting more spam calls than in the past, you are not alone. On average, each American receives nearly 31 spam calls per month, up from 28 calls in 2020.

According to the 2021 Truecaller Insights US Spam & Scam Report, 59.4 million Americans were victims of phone scams in the past 12 months. The average phone scam costs its victim just over 500 dollars.

In 2003, the national Do Not Call registry was implemented under the direction of the Federal Trade Commission. Individuals could register their home phones to not receive telephone sales calls. Later, mobile phone numbers could also be added to the list. In 2009, automated “robo-calls” were essentially outlawed (with exceptions for political campaigns, schools and some other non-sales purposes).  But technology has made it easier and cheaper to make calls. The transition from land-line phones to Voice-Over-Internet-Protocols (VOIP) for home phone lines and the trend toward abandoning a “home phone” altogether in favor of a mobile plan, have also meant that spam and scam operators can evade the law by changing locations (and numbers).

(When I arrived at Benjamin Rose in 2019, I set up a new mobile phone. The first call on the new phone came within 45 minutes of activating  my new number. The caller wanted to talk to me about “my” student loan.)

Phone etiquette and phone scams

Despite the common perception of victims as “lonely old ladies,” victims of phone scams are more likely to be younger men. (According to Truecaller, men aged 35-44 were the most likely victims.)  Mobile phones are the medium of choice for scammers, and a growing number of scams are sent via text messages. But older adults are often the target of a particular kind of scam that relies on a small bit of personal information. A scammer passes himself off on the phone as a grandchild or other relative, or as representative of Medicare or other trusted government program. Or a telemarketer insinuates a connection with the older adult and uses this as leverage to sell an unnecessary product or service, sometimes without the victim realizing that a sale was made. Recently, one of our Rose Centers for Aging Well participants was duped into changing her Medicare Advantage Plan to one that did not cover her regular physician, pharmacy or the hospital near her home. The transfer, made over the phone, did not require any signatures or any paperwork indicating her carrier was being changed.

One reason why older adults may fall victim to this kind of scam is the changing relationship between people and their phones.

Do you remember “telephone lessons” in grade school? As a kid, we learned the proper way to dial a number, how to answer the phone and to speak clearly. The home phone was probably mounted on a wall in the kitchen or sat on a table. The phone was in a public space, and you only had as much privacy as the coiled phone cord allowed.  Western Electric (manufacturer of those wall-mounted and desktop phones) produced a series of educational films in the 1950s, “Adventures in Telezonia” to teach kids how to use a telephone.  You were taught to memorize your home phone number. (My childhood phone number is one of the only ones I can remember!) When the phone rang at home, it was probably important, so you answered it. My parents taught us to answer with “Bell’s residence” so that the caller would know they had the correct number. When my folks got their first answering machine, their greeting message included their names, along with the guidance to “leave your name and number after the beep.” Most messages also seemed to include a variation of “we are not at home right now.” Otherwise, someone would have answered the phone! The most outrageous thing we did with the phone as kids was to prank call a classmate. (“Do you have your television on? Really, how does it fit?”) Phones were serious and expensive, not toys.

But in the digital age, the phone has gone from being a useful appliance to potentially being an unguarded entry into the home. The phone manners taught to Boomers and their parents sets them up for certain spam and scam calls. My dad politely declined the request for a donation made to his hospital room. But he didn’t slam down the phone. That would not be good phone etiquette. The practice of identifying oneself, either in answering the phone (and we always answer the phone. It might be important!) or in the greeting on the answering machine, opens a path for scammers to glean personal information.

After my parents retired, we had a conversation about the security of their phones. Dad changed the greeting on his voicemail. They got in the habit of checking the caller ID before answering the phone. It took some getting used to. The volume of telemarketing calls continues to increase. But they have taken steps to reduce the risk of being exploited.

Fortunately, there are a variety of resources to help guide a conversation with your loved ones about avoiding scams and protecting your information online. There are a many helpful tools available in the Resource Library on the Benjamin Rose website, including tips on using computers and smartphones, advice on dealing with robo-calls and phone scams and safeguards to avoid online scams.  Here are some other examples:

  • A community theater group in Florida recently produced a play about phone scams, and how to avoid them. Phoney Baloney is available for purchase on video, as well as in a production kit for other organizations that want to mount the play.

  • Here in Cuyahoga County, Benjamin Rose is part of the Scam Squad, a county-wide task force to combat scams that target older adults.  

  • And, the Senior Medicare Patrol helps older adults learn to identify and report healthcare fraud.

If your loved ones rely on a phone, smartphone, tablet or other devices to stay connected, make sure they know how to protect their information.