Medical Alert Device Shopping
The Savvy Consumer

Avoiding Medical Emergency Device Scams

Hang up on unsolicited offers: Don't ask for sales information. You could be targeted for "pay us or else" intimidation later on.

Avoid companies that claim the device is covered by insurance: A scammer might assert that 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

By Teresa McUsic

While searching for a medical alert system for my 87-year-old father this week, I employed some consumer tactics that can be applied for almost any purchase.

Fortunately, I didn’t have to convince my father, a recent widower, from needing such a device. In fact, he brought it up himself, telling me a harrowing story about a friend of his who fell and wasn’t found for three days. His friend survived, but just barely—enough to make both my Dad and me realize the importance of such a service while living alone.

More than one in three senior 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 devices other than the dramatic commercials I’ve seen on cable t.v. of elderly people falling and using their emergency button on a neck rope to call for help, I started out with my search for a reliable company on the Internet.

Turns out there are dozens of companies offering 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 the scammers in the industry. The Federal Trade Commission has identified scammers making unsolicited telephone calls to the elderly in order to sell fake emergency alert systems.

So I began my search for a company warily.

One good resource was ConsumerAffairs, a news and advocacy group based in Lake Tahoe, Nev. A quick search at and I found a story comparing the various devises services, saving me legwork on researching each company.

ConsumerAffairs evaluated 20 companies with five criteria: activation fee, monthly fee, length of agreement, range in feet and whether or not free spousal coverage was included. It was easy to compare companies on the chart provided and ConsumerAffairs marked three as trusted by the organization. This means those companies agreed to abide by ConsumerAffairs defined consumer protections.

Turns out there is a wide range among the services in both cost and coverage. While most do not have an activation fee, ADV Companion Service and Call for Assistance charged $150 and $249, respectively.

Monthly charges varied considerably as well. While Call for Assistance waived its monthly fee (no doubt because of the large activation fee), the rest varied on fees from $21.95 a month to $35, a considerable range considering most senior citizens are on a fixed income.

The physical range for the devices, which are tied to a 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 the top three companies ConsumerAffairs rated the 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 posted all of its pricing upfront, unlike Life Alert which required 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, which is how it kept its costs down.

Bay Alarm won me over for several other reasons. The website featured videos on how to install the device and how it is used, useful to both me and my father in understanding the product more. It offered a $1 off its monthly fee if you were an AARP or AAA member and three plans to pay monthly, quarterly or annually with discounts for the latter two. Another feature was the device could be worn around the neck or, as my father preferred, on the wrist.

And probably most importantly, when I called the company (immediately after I had signed my father up) the operator knew who my Dad was before I identified myself. His phone number had already identified him on their caller ID system. That to me spoke of good customer service, something that could prove lifesaving considering the product.

Other things to look for our consumer reviews and the company rating by the Better Business Bureau. 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. But these seemed to complicate the idea in a way that didn’t appeal to me or my father.

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. So I intend to keep asking my Dad if he has it on in our daily calls.

Better safe than sorry.