With the nation dealing with the global COVID-19 pandemic, seniors find themselves particularly at risk. Not only from underlying health issues, but seniors have found themselves particular targets of foreign scammers trying to capitalize on uncertain times.

With the coronavirus shut down happening simultaneously with tax season and the United States census, it’s created a rich environment for scammers to prey.

For Debbie Thayer, executive director of the Morristown Senior Center and Hamblen County Office of Aging, keeping her members aware and protected from the fraudulent offers has been a top priority.

“A lot of it has been dealing with scams and trying to make sure our folks know about them,” Thayer said. “They’re going after their tax returns and things of that nature, a cure for the virus and the census. All three of those are major things right now and the scams are targeting them. A lot of them are coming from overseas. We’ve been advised by the FBI and the TBI that those will peak.”

According to the IRS, scammers can try anything from attempting to get phishing and malware programs onto a computer, to impersonating IRS agents through phone and email communications. The IRS is clear that they never initiate contact by email to confirm personal information. They will not ask for identification information and will never ask a taxpayer to sign over a check.

It’s just one more problem for Thayer and her team to have to deal with as they struggle to keep the Lakeway Area senior community engaged during this unprecedented time of social distancing, something that for more active seniors has been an issue.

“We get asked when are we going to re-open?” Thayer said. “Our real active seniors don’t like to be inside too long. They know and they want to stay safe, they’re really anxious to get back out and be active again. We have both ends of the spectrum. The shut-ins and the active ones. Some of them are still getting out and going, but they tell us they wear their mask and stay by themselves.”

When that re-open does happen, Thayer’s not sure how it will look. It’s just one more adaptation that will need to be made to keep her members safe.

“Even before we closed the doors, we were warning people to be cautious,” Thayer said. “To wash and sanitize their hands. We were already tuned in to encouraging our seniors to take heed of things. Moreso than ever, we will continue to do that. How that will affect us on a day-to-day basis, we don’t know. It’s not unusual for us to have 50-60 people here every day. Even though sometimes we’re confined to a larger room and spread out, we’re always less than six feet apart. The space won’t let us. We haven’t gotten that far in how we’re going to do this. It’s something we have to figure out if we open back up on May 1.”

For now, the senior center is focused on the health and well-being of its members, though it’s been a challenge to do it safely.

“We haven’t had anything we haven’t been able to take care of,” Thayer said. “When people do need assistance, our fellow non profits have been able to help with that. When we do have situations where we do have to go out and assist, it’s a little bit harder. We don’t want to take anything into the home unknowingly, since the virus can be asymptomatic. It’s been hard for us to do a real thorough assessment when we’ve needed to do it. Sometimes you don’t get the full picture when you do it by phone, whereas when you’re in the home, you get to see their environment and get the face-to-face contact. To me, that’s the most important.”

There’s also the issue of those tax returns. The senior center offers tax services to its members and was forced to cancel more than 300 tax appointments when the stay at home order was enacted. Those will all have to be rescheduled as well as new tax appointments for those that file later.

“We’ve had more phone calls on that (taxes) than we have had on anything,” Thayer said. “A lot of the people that wait until later have to pay. Those people in the last two weeks of March, they were getting money back. That’s another issue. We want people to get their money back. Of all times, this is when they need their money.”

What seniors also need is emotional support. As everyone is dealing with loneliness, isolation, anxiety and depression during this quarantine era, seniors are particularly at risk. That’s why the senior center offers grief support through telehelp and the University of Tennessee Home Health Services as well as personal phone calls. They’re always available to talk.

“The one fiber that’s ran through it all is that they were glad that we called them,” Thayer said. “They’re fine, but they’re anxious to get back. They were happy to hear from a staff member. They’re so bored and it’s depressing to stay in all the time. But they know that they can call us and we’re here to talk. It’s been a real comfort to them.”