CHUCK NORRIS: Ageism and Scam Artists Take a Toll on Older Americans

As reported last week, the American Academy of Pediatrics, along with the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and the Children’s Hospital Association, have responded to a shocking rise in families seeking urgent mental health help for their children by referring it, not just a crisis, but a national emergency. What this suggests is that the impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had on mental health may be causing the most damage on both ends of the spectrum — the young and the old.

We must start to not only do a better job of addressing the mental health needs of youngsters, but also start to address the problem of ageism in this country with an equal sense of urgency.

Ageism is a global concern. In recognition of the problem earlier this year, the World Health Organization announced a global campaign to combat what it called “discrimination against older adults that is pervasive and harmful but often unrecognized.”

According to the Kaiser Health Network, mental health professionals have for several years been attempting to educate people about escalating age discrimination in this country. They have also been working to change policies and laws to promote age equity.

As reported by Kaiser, long before there was a pandemic, a 2015 study by the FrameWorks Institute, an organization that studies social issues, showed that many people commonly linked aging with images of deterioration, dependency and decline. Then the pandemic hit, and the perception got even worse. These stereotypes “almost surely contributed to policies that harmed older adults during the pandemic,” says Kaiser Health Network’s Judith Graham.

Cast aside was the fact that older adults vary widely in their abilities. Out of mind were the substantial number of older Americans who are healthy, independent and capable of contributing to society. In their place, a shocking death toll of the group hardest hit, the more than 500,000 older Americans who died from contracting COVID-19. If we were having trouble distinguishing old age from disease before, then what now?

Aging is a normal process. Equating old age with disease is not only wrong but dangerous. It is why there is now a movement underway calling for “old age to be removed as one of the causes and symptoms of disease in (a pending) revision of the International Classification of Diseases, a global resource used to standardize health data worldwide,” says Graham.

While that would be a start, it is hardly enough. Not only are older Americans forgotten or dismissed nowadays, but they are also continuing to be greatly exploited.

According to the Crime Report, a nonprofit multimedia information and networking resource platform, older Americans have been the prime target of fraudsters during the pandemic. In the latest annual Department of Justice report, since July 2020, the department has brought more than “220 criminal and civil enforcement actions in nearly 20 different types of fraud cases that targeted the elderly,” says the report.

“Experts speculate that the elderly were especially vulnerable because they spent more time on the internet and over the phone to stay in touch with family during the lockdowns and other measures imposed during the pandemic,” writes the Crime Report’s Andrea Cipriano.

“While technology has brought the world together in many ways, it has also opened the door to a myriad of fraud schemes that prey upon older adults,” says Deputy Attorney General Lisa O. Monaco commenting on the report.

“The Department of Justice report outlines countless cases of fake popup messages that convince victims to think that their computers are infected with malware, and that by calling a number listed and paying a fee, their computer would be saved,” says Cipriano. “Other popular scams have been from telemarketers who falsely claim someone’s identity has been stolen, or that they need to send money through gift cards to get out of legal trouble … Other pandemic scams surround unemployment fraud that has sucked anywhere from $87 million to $400 billion in unemployment relief.”

We are now in the midst of Medicare’s open-enrollment period, which began Oct. 15 and runs through Dec. 7, and not surprisingly has become open season on exploiting older Americans.

According to the Washington Post, “federal officials say complaints are rising from seniors tricked into buying policies — without their consent or lured based on questionable information — that may not cover their drugs or include their doctors.”

As explained to the Post by an Iowa resident named Linda Heimer, for her it started with a phone call she got back in October. Heimer was wise enough not to answer her phone unless caller ID displayed a number she recognized, but this call showed the number of the hospital where her doctor works, so she answered the call. The person on the phone said she needed Heimer’s Medicare number to make sure it was correct for the new card she would receive.

“I can’t believe this, but I gave her my card number,” Heimer says. As the call went on, she got suspicious and hung up. She then contacted the 800-MEDICARE helpline to get a new Medicare number, as well as the AARP Fraud Watch Network Helpline and the Federal Trade Commission.

“Armed with that number, scammers could bill Medicare for services and medical supplies that beneficiaries never receive,” writes the Post’s Susan Jaffe. “The scammers could sign seniors up for a Medicare Advantage or drug plan without their knowledge.”

Due to numerous complaints of misleading practices, “the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services has threatened to penalize private insurance companies selling Medicare Advantage and drug plans if they or agents working on their behalf mislead consumers,” reports Jaffe. “The department will not hesitate to use all the tools at its disposal to identify and disrupt such schemes, wherever they may originate or occur,” says Deputy Attorney General Monaco.

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