Israeli Telemarketers Scam the Elderly to the Tune of Millions of Dollars a Year, Report Finds

A non-profit group accuses some 165 companies of using aggressive sales pitches to lure consumers to read them their credit card information over the phone.

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An illustrative photo of an older man on the phone while holding a credit card.
An illustrative photo of an older man on the phone while holding a credit card.Credit: Evan Holt / iStockphoto via Gett
Jenya Volinsky

“The companies use databases of older people, many of whom live alone. The companies approach them by phone, obtain their credit card number by one pretext or another, like ‘you’ll get a gift’ or ‘you’re a member of the club.’ Then they send products to the person’s address that they never ordered and charge it to their credit cards.”

That’s how Kahol Lavan MK Meirav Cohen, head of the nonprofit organization Headquarters for the War Against Extorting the Elderly, described telemarketing scams aimed at older Israelis.

“In Israel there are companies whose business model is based on the exploitation of the elderly,” said Cohen.

The organization said this week it had received complaints regarding 1,180 incidents over the past 18 months, mostly by the elderly and, to a lesser extent, the disabled. They represented some 9.7 million shekels ($2.8 million) worth of losses. Close to 165 companies or other organizations were cited.

“We don’t publicize our hotline’s phone number so for every incident reported there are scores that don’t reach us,” said Cohen.

Telemarketers are the main perpetrators, according to the group’s annual report. They accounted for 729 of the complaints against 57 businesses and 7 million shekels of losses to the victims. Another widespread system for exploiting the elderly was selling them insurance for electronic appliances.

The fact that so many of the elderly live alone makes it easier for scammers to exploit them, said Cohen. “If there’s no family member nearby to intervene, there are people who will shamelessly lead them on for three or four years. These companies call and threaten old people. Most of the calls we get are from people asking that they simply stop being harassed,” Cohen said.

In one typical complaint, a 78-year-old woman named Sara responded to an advertisement for a blender that was being offered at no cost, apart from a 49.90-shekel delivery charge.

After buying the blender, Sara was called constantly with new offers of products for sale only for the cost of delivery. Eventually she realized the huge amounts she had agreed to pay and asked the marketers to stop calling. But the calls continued.

At one point, a representative offered to stop calling if she would pay 60,000 shekels. She agreed but the calls kept coming. The case was finally taken up by the police and the Economy and Industry Ministry’s Fair Trade Authority. Cohen’s organization found that Sara’s credit cards statement showed she had been billed by 33 companies more than 260,000 shekels in two years.

Among the 57 telemarketing companies cited in the organization’s annual report, three accounted for 183 complaints, or 16% of the total, and 2.95 million shekels worth of losses to victims, or more than 30% of the total.

The appliance insurance scam involves selling policies but not honoring the terms. In addition, companies often exploit victims by selling them multiple policies as happened in the case of Eyal, who suffers from cerebral palsy and was sold no less than 60 health insurance policies.

By the time his family discovered what was happening, Eyal had been paying 7,000 shekels a month in premiums, more than his entire monthly income, and was deep in debt. Cohen’s organization succeeded in getting back 220,000 shekels for him.

Other scams involve offering home nursing services that are never provided and others that offer to inspect their home water dispensers, find they are contaminated and offer to sell them a new device.

Among the best known companies cited in the report for alleged abuses were the cellular company Cellcom Israel, Pelephone and Partner Communications, mostly trying to sell the elderly upgraded service plans, enticing them with the offer of a gift if they do.

Cellcom responded: “The company does everything it can to promote transactions that are fair and without flaws while ensuring transparency and fairness.”

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