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Consumer Protection - Older Consumers At Risk

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The older population is growing rapidly. The aging of the "baby boomers," those born between 1946 and 1964, will accelerate this growth. The thirty-five million persons who were age sixty-five or older in 2000 make up a substantial force in the marketplace and have a significant impact on the economy. The economic status of older people has improved markedly over the past few decades. Compared to their parents, they have greater net worth and financial security. Between 1984 and 1999, the median net worth of households headed by older persons increased by about 70 percent. Fifteen percent of householders age fifty-five to fifty-nine have annual household incomes of $100,000 or more, as do 11 percent of those age sixty to sixty-four.

Householders age fifty-five to sixty-four, who generally are still working and enjoying peak earnings, spend more than young adults in most product and service categories. As better-educated and more affluent generations of Americans reach retirement age, they are projected to be more willing to spend in their older age than their Depression-era parents.

Moreover, several characteristics of the older population put them at special risk as consumers. Retirees living on Social Security or savings have less opportunity to recover financially if they lose their savings to an investment scam. A poor financial decision can have a greater impact on the older person than on a younger wage earner who can get another job and has time to replenish savings. Unfortunately, memory impairment or other cognitive losses for older adults can make them especially vulnerable to financial exploitation.

With money to spend, invest, and possibly leave to heirs, older consumers are at risk that someone will try to take advantage of them financially.

Controlling 70 percent of the nation's household net worth, persons over the age of fifty are prime targets for financial exploitation. Among the most vulnerable consumers are those over age seventy-five. Studies of consumer behavior of persons over fifty by the AARP (formerly American Association of Retired Persons) show that they expect honesty in the marketplace, are less likely to take action when they are defrauded, and are less knowledgeable about their rights in an increasingly complex marketplace (AARP, 1999). Frequently retired, they are more likely to be at home when a home repair contractor, who just happens to be in the neighborhood, knocks on the door. Telemarketers know they are home during the day to answer telephone solicitations.

The list of potential exploiters is long. They can be telemarketers, door-to-door salespersons, home repair contractors, finance companies, funeral directors, and financial advisors, as well as friends and family. All means of deception can be used to separate older consumers from their money. Con artists work their trade at the front door, on the street, in the office, or over the phone. Wherever they meet their victims, they rely on psychology, rather than force, to control their victims. Typically, the best players of these mind games have perfected the basic techniques of a confidence crime. First, they grab the potential victim's attention through some promise to make or save money. Using fast talk and impressive wording, they build confidence and trust. Next, to keep the victim's attention, they demonstrate an authoritative manner, pleasing personality, and empathy for the victim's needs or concerns. By playing on the victim's emotions and moving quickly through the pitch, the clever con artist gains control. Once the victim loses control of the transaction, or the conversation, they are likely to be rushed into making decisions, so they cannot check with others or use common sense.

Seventeen percent of consumers age eighteen and over report in the 1999 AARP survey of consumer behavior that they were the victim of a major consumer fraud or swindle. In AARP studies of telemarketing fraud more than half (57 percent) of persons over age fifty report getting at least one telemarketing call each week. And those calls work. Fourteen percent of respondents said that they had sent money, given their credit card number, entered a contest, made an investment, or donated to a charity in response to a phone solicitation.

Because of appreciation in home values and paid-off mortgages, the home is where the money is for older consumers. More than 80 percent of households headed by persons age fifty and older own their homes. Almost 60 percent of that group owns those homes free of any mortgage. Older homeowners are more likely to live in an older home that needs repairs, but less likely to be able to do the repairs on their own or to have money on hand for major repairs. This combination of factors puts them at risk for home repair fraud. To further compound the fraud, the contractor may steer the homeowner to a high cost home loan. Predatory mortgage lending practices in some communities threaten the stability of home ownership for older Americans. When loans are based on the equity in a home, rather than the homeowner's ability to repay the loan, the risk of foreclosure is greatly increased. The number of foreclosures in the United States has tripled since 1980, from over 150,000 to almost 459,000 in 1995. The consequences of foreclosure for an older homeowner can be shattering. It represents more than a loss of shelter; it could be the loss of the home a family has occupied for decades. As a result of foreclosure, some older homeowners may have to move into a nursing home.

Older persons who are concerned about passing their estates on to heirs may fall prey to investment counselors, insurance sales presentations, and living trust purveyors who falsely promise risk-free investments and exaggerate the costs of probate. Parties on both sides of a viatical settlement can be exposed to fraud. A viatical settlement is the sale at a discount of a life insurance policy. Insured persons, called viators, can obtain cash by selling a life insurance policy to a viatical settlement company. The viatical settlement company, in turn, sells the policy to a third-party investor. The investor continues to pay the premiums on the policy and collects the face value of the policy after the original policy-holder dies. While in some instances this financial transaction can produce much needed money for medical or nursing home expenses, unscrupulous promoters can defraud both the viator and investor.

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