Defend Yourself Against IRS Scammers

Published in Woonsocket Call on March 27, 2016

With federal regulators reporting a surge in tax-related fraud schemes, the U.S. Internal Revenue Service and Rhode Island’s Division of Taxation are requiring new income tax filing requirements. The AARP Fraud Watch Network also gears up its efforts to protect consumers from Internal Revenue Service (IRS) Imposter Scams.

According to the U.S. Internal Revenue Service (IRS), an aggressive and sophisticated phone scam targeting taxpayers, including recent immigrants, is making its rounds throughout the nation. Here’s the scam. A caller claims to be employed by the IRS, but they are not. To be seen as legitimate the con artist uses a fake names and even rattle off a bogus IRS identification badge numbers. The caller ID may even be altered to make it look like the call is coming straight from the IRS. .

Usually victims are told they owe taxes to the IRS and it must be quickly paid through a pre-loaded debit card or wire transfer or they will suffer the consequences. If the victim refuses to cooperate with the federal agency, then they are threatened by the con artist with arrest, deportation or suspension of a business or driver’s license. In many cases, the caller becomes hostile and insulting. Victims may also be told they have a refund due to try to trick them into sharing private financial information. If the phone isn’t answered, the scammers often leave an “urgent” callback request.

Knowledge is Power over Scammers

To combat this growing problem, the AARP Fraud Watch Network gears up its educational campaign, with digital advertising featuring a new tip sheet and online video to combat the “IRS Imposter Scam.”

Our goal is to warn consumers and empower them with the knowledge they need to keep their family members from falling victim to the IRS imposters,” said Nancy LeaMond, Chief Advocacy & Engagement Officer, AARP. “Once they recognize certain red flags, they will be confident in resisting the aggressive bullying and scare tactics used by the scammers.”

The Fraud Watch Network campaign is advising consumers that legitimate IRS agents do not call and demand immediate payment. The IRS will not call about owed taxes without making contact by mail. The IRS will not require a taxpayer to use a specific payment method to make a tax payment, such as a prepaid debit card; or ask for credit or debit card numbers over the phone. Finally, the IRS will not threaten to bring in local police or other law-enforcement groups to have you arrested for not paying.

For more information about the IRS scam and other tax-related frauds, visit http://www.aarp.org/FraudWatchNetwork. Consumers who think that they are being targeted by a scammer may call the FWN helpline at 877-908-3360 and speak with a trained counselor.

Federal and State Efforts to Protect Tax Payers

The IRS, announces that many newly implemented safeguards are now in place that consumers may not even be aware of, but are invaluable in fighting against the stolen identify refund fraud. Many of these changes are designed to better authenticate the tax payer’s identity and validate the tax-return at the time of filing.

The most visible change is new password protections for private-sector ax software accounts. Newly implemented standards require a minimum 8-digit password using a combination of letters, numbers and special characters. There also will be new security questions, new lock-out features and new ways to verify emails.

IRS’s password standards are intended to help protect taxpayers from identity thieves who take over their software accounts and file fraudulent tax returns using their names and Social Security numbers.

In a January 19, 2016 Advisory for Tax Professionals, Rhode Island’s Division of Taxation is putting in processing safeguards to protect an estimated 600,000 Ocean State taxpayers. Acting Tax Administrator Neena S. Savage announced that this tax season all taxpayers and preparers who file electronically will be asked to enter a driver’s license number as part of the tax preparation process.

“This is another way to verify your identity and the validity of your return before the processing of the return is completed,” says Savage, noting that the new filing requirement for is part of a coordinated and collaborative effort among the states, the U.S. Internal Revenue Service, tax software providers, and others to help protect taxpayers from identity theft that may lead to tax refund fraud.

The requiring a taxpayers driver’s license is just “another layer of protection because identity thieves may already have your name and Social Security number, but perhaps not your driver’s license number,” says Savage, adding that this will assist states in matching driver’s license information with other identifying records to help confirm the filers identity.

“Tax software will prompt you for your driver’s license number. The information will be transmitted only in electronically filed returns; it will not appear on paper returns. It will also be safeguarded along with the rest of your tax return information,” adds Savage. The return will not be rejected if a taxpayer does not have a driver’s license number, or does have one
but does not provide it, she said.

New Phone app Fights IRS Phone Scam

With the April 18th Tax Day deadline fast approaching, Whitepages, a Seattle, Washington–based company releases an update for its ID app for Android that blocks suspected IRS scammers. The new Auto-Blocker automatically stops “IRS Imposter Calls” from reaching the user.

“Fraudulent phone scams are on the rise and, while some carriers and handset makers are starting to solve this problem, consumers need ways to educate and protect themselves,” said Jan Volzke, Vice President, Reputation Services at Whitepages. “While the IRS scam is far from the only unwanted call identified by our leading technology, it’s certainly top of mind this busy tax season. We want to help ease concern by making sure a large majority of those calls never reach their intended targets.”

Whitepages says, of the 300 million incoming calls that the company scans monthly in the U.S., more than 15 million are classified as “unwanted.” Last year, Whitepages identified the IRS scam as the number one type of scam call, with more than 1.2 million of these types of calls being made per month, accounting for at least 8 percent of all calls blocked by users. In addition, comparing February data from 2014 to 2016, IRS scam calls have grown exponentially, at nearly 2,500 percent over the past two years.

The new updated Whitepages ID app automatically blocks any incoming calls that have been identified by the company’s proprietary algorithms as being a known IRS scam number. The Alto-Blocker also includes the blocking of numbers that the IRS has officially flagged as suspicious.

While the Auto-Blocker stops IRS scam calls from ringing phones, users have the option to keep this auto feature on, or adjust the protection level based on type of call including: Scam or Fraud, Suspected Spam, Hidden Numbers, or International Numbers.

As scammers switch phone numbers in an effort to avoid detection, phone users will be alerted to popular or new area codes where scam calls are originating, so they can remain on the defense against numbers that may not yet have been blocked.

Finally, users can easily report IRS specific scam numbers back to Whitepages to be put on its block list.

Whitepage’s new app is free and available on GooglePlay.

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Survey: Older Americans Puzzled About LTC Programs and Services

Published in Woonsocket Call on July 19, 2015

Planning for your golden years is key to aging gracefully.  But, according to a new national survey looking at experiences and attitudes, most Aging Boomers and seniors do not feel prepared for planning or financing their long-term care for themselves or even their loved ones.

This Associated Press (AP)-NORC (NORC) Center for Public Affairs Research study, funded by The SCAN Foundation, explores a myriad of aging issues, including person-centered care experiences and the special challenges faced by the sandwich generation.  These middle-aged adults juggle their time and stretching their dollars by providing care to their parents, even grandparents while also financially assisting their adult children and grandchildren.

Older American’s Understanding of LTC

This 21 page survey report, released on July 9th, is the third in an annual series of studies of Americans age 40 and older, examines older Americans understanding of long-term care, their perceptions and misperceptions regarding the cost and likelihood of requiring long-term care services, and their attitudes and behaviors regarding planning for possible future care needs.

The survey’s findings say that 12 percent of Americans age 40 to 54 provide both financial support for their children and ongoing living assistance to other loved ones.   Federal programs are often times confusing to these individuals, too.   More than 25 percent are unsure whether Medicare pays for ongoing living assistance services like nursing homes and home health aides. About 1 in 4 older Americans also overestimate private health insurance coverage of nursing home care.

Researchers noted that about half of the respondents believe that a family member or close friend will need ongoing living assistance within the next five years. Of those who anticipate this need, 7 out of 10 reports they do not feel very prepared to provide care, they note.

More than three-quarters of those surveyed age 40 or older who are either receiving or providing ongoing living assistance indicate that their care includes at least one component of “person-centered care.”  This approach allows individuals to take control of their own care by specifying preferences and outlining goals that will approve their quality of life.

The survey also finds that most of those reporting believe that features of “person-centered care” have improved the quality of care

Paying for Costly LTC Services

The 2015 survey findings are consistent with AP-NORC survey findings from previous years, that is older Americans continue to lack confidence in their ability to pay the costs of ongoing living assistance.  Medium annual costs for nursing homes are $91,260; the cost for at-home health is about half that amount, $45,760, says the report.

Finally, only a third of the survey respondents say that they have set aside money for their care. More than half report doing little or no planning at all for their own ongoing living assistance needs in their later years.

“The three surveys on long-term care [by AP-NORC] are helping us create a comprehensive picture of what Americans 40 and older understand about the potential need for these critically important services,” said Director Trevor Tompson, at the AP-NORC Center in a statement. “Experts estimate that 7 in 10 Americans who reach the age of 65 will need some form of long-term care, and our findings show that many Americans are unprepared for this reality,” he says.

Dr. Bruce Chernof, President and CEO of The SCAN Foundation, says that the 2015 study takes a look at public perception regarding long-term care and most importantly, how people can plan for future long-term care needs.  “The insight provided by this research is critical because it will help us promote affordable health care and support for daily living, which are essential to aging with dignity and independence.” he says.

AP-NORC’s 2015 study results are validated by other national research studies, says AARP Rhode Island State Director Kathleen Connell.    “AARP’s research, both nationally and state by state, reveals that people in the 50+ population are concerned about the cost of retirement and especially long-term care,” she says, observing that “very few people seem worry free on this question and rightfully so.”

 Beginning the Planning Process

Connell adds, “I would say our response to this survey is that it adds to the awareness that people need to start thinking about this at an earlier age. And that means not only focusing on saving but also getting serious about health and fitness.”

What can a person do to better prepare for paying for costly long-term care and community based services?   “AARP.org has an abundance of information on long-term care. There’s advice on long-term care insurance, a long-term care cost calculator and many other resources. We also need to remain strong as advocates for programs that support seniors. Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid need to remain strong in order to support Americans entering the most vulnerable chapters of their lives,” she says.

Amy Mendoza, spokesperson for the American Health Care Association (AHCA), a Washington, DC-based trade association that represents over 12,000 non-profit and proprietary skilled nursing centers, assisted living communities, sub-acute centers and homes for individuals with intellectual and development disabilities, calls for increased conversations to help planning for potential future need.  “Given that the need for long-term or post-acute care is a life changing event, it demands some considerable thought, discussion and research,” says Mendoza.

“AHCA’s “Care Conversations” program helps individuals have the honest and productive discussions needed to plan and prepare for the future long-term care needs,” adds Mendoza.  Care Conversations has a Planning Tools page on its website which provides information on advance directives. Learn more at: http://careconversations.org/planning-tools.

Todd Whatley, a certified elder law attorney, notes that some of his best clients are middle age adults who after taking care of their parents want to avoid costly nursing home or community based care services.  “They are then suddenly very interested in some type of [insurance] coverage for the extraordinary expense of long term care when a year earlier, they had no interest whatsoever,” he says.

Whatley, President-Elect of the Tuscan, Arizona-based National Elder Law Foundation, suggests contacting a financial planner or Certified Elder Law Attorney when purchasing long term care insurance, “Get early advice from someone with their best interest at heart.  There are many times that a person simply doesn’t need this product financially, but most people do.

To locate a Certified Elder Law Attorney, contact Lori Barbee, Executive Director, National Elder Law Foundation.  She can be reached at 520-881-1076 or by email: Lori@nelf.org.

For a copy of the study, go to http://www.longtermcarepoll.org/Pages/Polls/long-term-care-2015.aspx.

Herb Weiss, LRI ’12 is a Pawtucket-based writer covering aging, health care and medical issues.  He can be reached at hweissri@aol.com.

 

 

Meals on Wheels Should Be Expanded

 Published in Pawtucket Times, October 25, 2013

            A warm, nutritious meal combined with social interaction can go a long way to putting the brakes to a state’s spiraling Medicaid costs.  According to new study findings detailed in this months issue of Health Affairs by Brown University public health researchers, expanding programs like Meals on Wheels, would save 26 of 48 states money in their Medicaid programs, just by allowing a person to stay in their own homes. 

            Kali Thomas, Assistant Professor of Research in the Brown University School of Public Health, says that if every U.S. state in the lower 48 expanded the number of seniors receiving meals by just 1 percent, 1,722 more Medicaid recipients avoid living in a nursing facility and most states would experience a net annual savings from implementing the expansion.

Put the Brakes to Medicaid Costs

            According to the study’s findings, Medicaid cost savings would be different in every state.  For instance, Pennsylvania would see the greatest net savings – $5.7 million – as Medicaid costs for nursing facility care decrease more than costs rose for delivering the additional meals.  Meanwhile, Florida would see a net cost of nearly $11.5 million instead. Overall, 26 states would stand to see a net savings according to the Brown University Public Health analysis, while 22 would end up spending more.

            Every state would enable more seniors, who could live independently except for meals, to remain in their homes regardless of whether they are on Medicaid.

            Thomas, the study’s lead author, believes the study’s findings can provide guidance for state lawmakers and state policymakers as they hammer out budget funding for home-delivered meals programs, which are conducted under the Older Americans Act.

            “We wanted to provide a roadmap for people,” Thomas said.

             To calculate Medicaid savings, Thomas and co-author Vincent Mor, Brown’s Florence Pirce Grant Professor of Community Health, examined data, including how many seniors in each state receive home-delivered meals and how much it costs each state to provide those meals. She and Mor also took a look at nursing facility and Medicaid data to estimate the number of seniors that Medicaid maintains in nursing facilities who are “low-care,” meaning they may have the functional capabilities to live at home. Finally they looked at the per diem Medicaid pays in each state for seniors to live in nursing facilities.

 Keeping Seniors at Home

             The study findings allowed them to estimate the incremental cost of providing meals to 1 percent more seniors in each state, the number of additional seniors on Medicaid who would no longer need to live in nursing facilities, and how much less Medicaid would have to pick up for the higher level of care in each state.

            The researchers found that the 1 percent expansion nationwide would bring meals to 392,594 more seniors at a cost of more than $117 million. Because 1,722 seniors would no longer have to live in costly nursing facilities paid for by Medicaid, total program savings would total $109 million.

            The reason why the study’s findings indicate that additional food delivery costs outstrip Medicaid savings nationwide, even though most states would save money on a net basis, is that in some very large states with relatively few low-care seniors or relatively low Medicaid per diems, food costs outweighed the resulting Medicaid savings on a relatively large scale.

            “In states like California and Florida where a 1-percent increase in the 65-plus population is a lot of people, it will cost those states a lot more to feed them,” Thomas said.

            But, as she and Mor wrote in Health Affairs, “Our analyses suggest that 26 states with high Medicaid nursing home per diem reimbursement rates, a large proportion of low-care [nursing home residents on Medicaid], and a relatively small population of older adults, could save money.”

            Thomas said states projected to lose money can opt to focus their efforts in ways that are more precise than an across-the-board expansion.

            “We’re not proposing that all states simply increase the proportion of age 65 plus receiving meals by 1 percent,” she said. “But if they were to target these vulnerable people who are at risk for nursing home placement they would likely see more savings. This is a program that has the potential to save states a lot of money if it’s done correctly.”

            Policymakers should consider not only the fiscal implications of providing home-delivered meals, which the study quantifies, but also the impact on individual seniors, said Thomas, who has seen the benefits anecdotally as a Meals on Wheels volunteer in both Florida and Rhode Island.

            Thomas’s research, detailed in this month’s issue of Health Affairs, which was completed last December, is featured in AARP Rhode Island’s award-winning documentary Hungry in the West End. Creator and director John Martin of the AARP

             Rhode Island state office screened the documentary in August at the Meals on Wheels Association of America National Conference in Boston. You can watch Hungry in the West End online at www.aarp.org/hungry.

             Although the quality of life argument is easy to see, other researchers, like Thomas, are closely looking at how the Meals on Wheels program can lower Medicaid costs.

             Based on a study by the Washington, D.C. based Center for Effective Government released in April 2013, every dollar invested in Meals on Wheels today could save taxpayers up to $50 in Medicaid costs down the road.

 Other Benefits of Meals on Wheels  

             Ellie Hollander, President and CEO of the Meals on Wheels Association of America, observes that both Brown University and the Center for Effective Government studies specifically focused on Medicaid savings attributable to nursing homes, but do not take into consideration significant savings that would be realized through reduced Medicare costs as well, through fewer visits to physicians and the emergency room and less hospitalization or reduced readmissions.

             Hollander says, “We have long known that the value of Meals on Wheels goes beyond the social and moral imperative of helping to address the epidemic of senior hunger in America.  “The friendly visit and a safety check are a lifeline enabling seniors to live more independently and healthy in their own homes, which in turn avoids far more costly health care alternatives often paid through Medicare and Medicaid,” she says.

             “The Brown University research proves what our work has long suggested to us: the Home Delivered Meals Program not only makes a positive impact for the senior, it is a good investment for the state as well,” says Executive Director Heather Amaral, Meals on Wheels of RI.

            Another study is in the works to support Thomas’ efforts to closely look at the impact of nutritious home delivered meals.  According to Hollander, a $350,000 grant from the AARP Foundation and the Meals on Wheels Association announced on Oct. 6 will enable Thomas to begin her randomized controlled trial of 600 seniors representing a cross-section of rural, urban, low income and minority populations across the country and a majority of the grant will be used to feed these seniors.            

            In this upcoming study, 200 seniors will receive meals daily, 200 more will receive a delivery of frozen meals once a week and then another 200 will continue on the waiting list as before as a control group. The study will compare quality of life, isolation, and health care utilization among individuals before and after they begin receiving meals and across the three groups.

             Holland says, “Through our generous grant from AARP Foundation, and with Dr. Thomas and Brown University’s help, we will seek to monetize the value add of the “more than a meal” component of Meals on Wheels.”

A Call for Support

            On AARP.org, Kathleen S. Connell, Rhode Island AARP State Director, calls on state lawmakers to take a very hard look at how they fund the state’s Meals on Wheels program.  Connell urges Congress not to put the Meals on Wheels program on the budgetary chopping block as a way to chop the huge federal budget deficit.

            Connell says that “Leaders need to be reminded that Meals on Wheels recipients aren’t unemployed workers waiting to return to jobs that will accompany an economic recovery. They are older retirees living on limited fixed incomes. With the cost of prescription medicines, healthcare and utilities going up, they sometimes can’t afford to eat. Many commonly sacrifice on food because of money worries – real or feared.”

            Connell notes, “Meals on Wheels is a big deal [to seniors]. No one should take it for granted.”

            Herb Weiss, LRI ’12, is a writer covering aging, health care and medical issues. He can be reached at hweissri@aol.com.