While searching for a medical alert system for my 87-year-old father this week, I employed some consumer tactics that can be applied to almost any purchase.Fortunately, I didn’t have to convince my father, a recent widower, that he needs such a device. In fact, he brought it up himself, telling me a harrowing story about a friend who fell and wasn’t found for three days. His friend survived but just barely — enough to make both of us realize the importance of such a service while living alone. More than one in three adults age 65 or older will fall in a year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Those falls can lead to broken hips, head trauma and other serious injuries. And being left on the floor for hours or even days can lead to dehydration, pressure ulcers, renal failure and a host of other problems.Not knowing anything about the medical alert devices, other than the dramatic TV commercials showing elderly people who’ve fallen, I started out with my search for a reliable company on the Internet. Turns out there are dozens of companies that offer this service. The devices have become so popular, in fact, that this month AARP featured a story in its Bulletin talking about how to avoid scams in the industry. The Federal Trade Commission has identified scammers making unsolicited telephone calls to the elderly to sell fake emergency alert systems.One good resource was ConsumerAffairs, a news and advocacy group based in Lake Tahoe, Nev. A quick search at www.ConsumerAffairs.com turned up a story comparing the various device services, saving me legwork on researching each one.ConsumerAffairs evaluated 20 companies with five criteria: activation fee, monthly fee, length of agreement, range in feet and whether free spousal coverage was included. It was easy to compare companies on its chart and ConsumerAffairs marked three as trusted by the organization. This means those companies agreed to abide by consumer protections defined by ConsumerAffairs.Turns out there is a wide range among the services in both cost and coverage. While most do not charge an activation fee, ADV Companion Service and Call for Assistance charge $150 and $249, respectively. Monthly charges vary considerably as well. While Call for Assistance waived its monthly fee (no doubt because of the large activation fee), the other fees varied from $21.95 a month to $35, a considerable range considering most senior citizens are on a fixed income.The physical range of the devices, measured by radius from a point in your home, also varied considerably. Call for Assistance’s range was just 100 feet, while the three trusted by ConsumerAffairs went out 1,000 feet.Since the study was done last year, my next step was to look at websites of three companies ConsumerAffairs rated highest: Life Alert, Alert1 and Bay Alarm Medical. The latter had the lowest price ($21.95 a month) and no activation fee or monthly contract.Bay Alarm posts all of its pricing upfront, unlike Life Alert which requires you to call or send for a brochure. That type of transparency is always welcome in making a consumer decision. Bay Alarm also said it didn’t do much advertising to keep its costs down.Bay Alarm won me over for several other reasons. The website featured videos on how to install the device and use it, a help to both myself and my father in understanding the product. It offered $1 off its monthly fee for AARP or AAA members, with options to pay monthly, quarterly or annually as well as discounts with the latter two. The device could also be worn around the neck or, as my father preferred, on the wrist.And probably most importantly, the third time I called the company (after I had signed my father up) the operator knew who my Dad was before I told them, because his phone number had already identified him. I consider that good customer service, something that could prove lifesaving considering the product.Also look for consumer reviews and the company’s Better Business Bureau rating. These tools are important to use every time you purchase something new. ConsumerAffairs also recommends that anyone shopping for a home medical alarm should ask for a list of local references and read the contract carefully.Some companies are offering more high-tech solutions that will automatically detect a fall or are compatible with cell phones, Bluetooth and GPS systems. AARP also warns that many people who own the service don’t wear the device regularly. Research shows the reasons for not using the devices are forgetfulness, panic, trauma or not wanting to alarm others.But having the device on the stair rail or bedside table won’t do much good if you fall. So I intend to keep asking my Dad if he has it on during our daily calls.Better safe than sorry.Teresa McUsic’s column appears Saturdays. TMcUsic@SavvyConsumer.net
Don’t get scammed on medical alerts
Hang up on unsolicited offers: Don’t ask for sales information. You could be targeted for “pay us or else” intimidation later on.
Beware claims the device is covered by insurance: A scammer might assert that a product won’t cost you because you have insurance. But Medicare, Medicaid and most insurance companies typically do not pay for this equipment. In the rare cases when they do, a doctor’s recommendation is required.
Reject robocalls: These calls are illegal unless you have contacted the company. Assume that any unsolicited prerecorded sales call is the work of scammers.
Don’t respond to offers to “opt out” of future calls: That alerts callers to a working number.
Don’t pay for anything you didn’t order: Even if legal action is threatened.
Source: AARP July Bulletin