Most Americans encounter some form of fraud during their lifetime, but none are as likely to fall prey to it as senior citizens. Older generations tend to be more polite and trusting, making them particularly vulnerable to the high-pressure tactics of con artists. Paired with the fact that our cognitive skills tend to decline with age, and that elderly possess the majority of American assets, seniors are often an easy and lucrative mark for criminals.
According to the Senate’s Special committee on Aging, financial elder abuse causes seniors to lose nearly $3 billion to fraud every year. Between Medicare scams, tax-refund schemes, and the wide array of Internet fraud that has become so widespread online, the elderly have never before have been at such high risk of financial ruin. With such high stakes, it’s vital to become familiar with some of the more common types of scams, as well as some simple steps you can take to help protect those closest to you.
The Many Faces of Fraud
Scams come in a variety of shapes and forms. Your loved one may be sitting at home one afternoon when they receive a call from a person claiming to represent a tech company that they’ve done business with in the past. That person may offer a refund for services previously rendered, and promise to process it through a direct deposit… in exchange for their banking details.
It could be a knock at the door from someone posing as a government official, threatening to take away benefits if an immediate payment isn’t made. It may even be something seemingly as benign as an individual claiming they need remote access to a personal computer in order to fix a problem they’ve experienced, with the aim of stealing personal information, or installing Trojan software to access banking information.
Preying On the Emotions of the Elderly: Another Type of Scam
Another popular “grandparent scam” isn’t quite as tech-based, but still preys upon the emotions of loving grandparents. Recently, a 31-year-old con man admitted to having scammed several seniors for tens of thousands of dollars by calling them and pretending to be their grandson.
The con man, who remained anonymous in exchange for offering news outlets information on his scam, would call older adults and pretend to be their grandson who was on vacation and had gotten in trouble with the law. He would elicit their sympathies and ask them for money to help him out of his situation so he could safely return home.
The con man requested that his “grandparents” would send money to an account in North Carolina, leading them to believe that the funds were going directly to a lawyer who would assist him. Instead, he was pocketing the money that goodnatured grandparents had sent to someone they had believed to be their grandchild.
The truth is, fraud can come in thousands of different forms, which makes it almost hopeless to try and remember or imagine every possibility. Fortunately, there are several steps you can take to help ensure that no matter what form a scam may take, your loved one won’t make the mistake of falling prey to their trusting nature, and meet financial ruin in the process.
Avoiding Senior Scams
The one thing that nearly all these scams have in common is that the perpetrator attempts to collect personal information, or to pressure your loved one into making an immediate payment. You can almost immediately spot a scam by the way which payment is sought. This is because scammers prefer non-traceable, non-refundable payments, including money orders, cashier’s checks, or pre-paid debit cards. If your loved one makes a payment to a scam artist through their credit card, it’s usually possible to call the credit card company directly and request a chargeback.
An experienced con artist can take seemingly harmless personal information and use it as a gateway to access more valuable data, or even steal one’s identity. Your loved one may know that it’s a bad idea to provide their banking information to anyone they didn’t call or solicit directly, but they’re unlikely to know that this applies equally to other personal information, including their mother’s maiden name, the name of their pets, or even their birthday. If a stranger does inquire about that information, it’s a good idea to begin asking for names, addresses, phone numbers, or any other information that can help establish the truth of who the person making the request is.
Creating a Safety Net
A good place to begin safeguarding your loved one is to sign them up for the FCC Do-Not-Call registry. This can be done over the phone (888-382-1222) or online at DoNotCall.gov. Telemarketers who call those who are registered can be severely penalized, which means that telemarketers who do call are far more likely to scammers be posing as legitimate organizations.
Be sure to install the latest operating system and anti-virus protection on any electronic devices that your family may use. Older software and out-of-date antivirus programs are vulnerable to a variety of severe security issues, many of which can cause the security of your computer to be compromised with the simple click of a link.
Elderly financial abuse can ruin lives, wipe out retirement funds, and cause your entire family to suffer the consequences. If your loved one does become a victim of fraud, you should strongly encourage them to report it. The AARP has found that three quarters of people over the age of 55 don’t report fraud, possibly due to the embarrassment of having been duped. Talking to your loved one about these issues and how common they are can help ensure that they’re not embarrassed to come forward should they fall prey to a senior scam.
The toll-free national fraud hotline is available at 1-855-303-9470 during business hours, Eastern Standard Time. While it’s important to be informed about the issue of fraud year-round, one of the best times to discuss it is during the holidays, when fraudulent activity tends to peak.