Scams Are a Family Caregiver Issue

Related topics: Caregivers, Seniors and the Internet, Legal & Financial, Safety, Elder Abuse

Worried senior man on the phone with credit card

If you're a family caregiver, you've probably talked to your loved ones about safety issues like fall prevention, installing smoke alarms, and medication management. But there's another threat to the well-being of seniors that caregivers might overlook. An epidemic of fraud is perpetrated against older adults, each year robbing them of billions of dollars—and their quality of life.

Anyone can fall for a scam. But seniors may be at greater risk, due to cognitive changes, unfamiliarity with new technologies, and social isolation that can leave them vulnerable to the wiles of a "friendly stranger." And while younger people are unlikely to answer a phone call from an unfamiliar number, seniors often do. A smooth-talking con artist can steal a few dollars from them … or completely deplete their nest egg, ruining their financial security in retirement. Recent research shows that "wealth shock"—losing a large portion of one's savings—can cause a profound loss of physical and mental health.

Caregivers are affected, too

A recent study from Allianz Life Insurance Company of North America showed that when seniors are defrauded of their money, family caregivers also experience a financial impact. According to their "Safeguarding Our Seniors" study, "Nearly 90% of both active and potential caregivers said they experienced a financial impact when their elder was financially abused, with the average cost to those caregivers reaching a staggering $36,000. In addition, those providing care for past victims are spending significantly more than those caring for elders with no history of financial abuse, which in turn is negatively impacting the caregivers' ability to save for their own retirements."

Building resistance to fraud

Luckily, there’s a lot we can do to help our loved ones avoid being defrauded. Con artists rely on our ignorance. They put on a convincing act and pressure victims to act fast. The best way to see through their wiles is to become familiar with their tactics. Compare it to an immunization: We get a vaccine, and then when a bad germ targets our body, our immune system is ready for it. In the same way, knowing in advance what a crook might try helps us recognize swindles and avoid falling for them.

To help your loved one be more scam-savvy, share information about these common schemes:

  • Impostor scams. A crook might call or email, pretending to be from the IRS and demanding money. They might pretend to be from a computer company or the person's phone provider, and convince the victim to grant access to their computer and personal data. Another classic is the "grandparents scam," in which the caller pretends to be a grandchild or other family member who is supposedly in trouble of some kind and begs the senior to send money—usually via wire transfer or prepaid gift cards, both of which are red flags.
  • Scams based on news events. Crooks often piggyback their schemes on real events. For example, Medicare is sending out new cards this year; on the heels of the announcement, scammers began to impersonate Medicare representatives, demanding money or the person's bank account information. And after every natural disaster, phony charities claim to be collecting donations—when in fact, the con artists pocket the money.
  • Websites selling fake goods. Crooks put up convincing websites to sell counterfeit drugs, worthless supplements or too-good-to-be true offers on everything from cars to vacation rentals. Many take your money and fail to deliver the goods at all—and they may also be out to steal your credit card or bank account information.
  • Phony sweepstakes or lotteries. "Congratulations, you've won a free prize!" The crooks claim the victim has won big, and all the "winner" needs to do is send money or provide their credit card number as a "handling fee" for the fictitious windfall. The scammers might even send a phony check with lots of zeroes; by the time the bank rejects the check, the victim has already sent money to the crooks.
  • Fake friends and "lonely hearts" schemes. Socially isolated elders may be vulnerable to a con artist who meets them at church, online or on a park bench and befriends them in order to gain access to their money. Today, more seniors are also using dating sites, which are a notorious hunting ground for scammers, says the Better Business Bureau.
  • Door-to-door sale of magazines, home improvement services or products. Fraudsters may use foot-in-the-door techniques to convince an elder to purchase things they don't really want or that never arrive. They may offer shoddy home repair services or claim to spot a problem that needs fixing (that really doesn't). Their main goal in getting into the home may be to steal. Post a "no solicitors" sign and warn your loved one never to let a stranger in the house.
  • Bogus investments. Older adults are often the target of financial swindlers. They have a nest egg and of course they'd like to make extra money with it. They might be invited to a free lunch at a nice restaurant, that includes a pitch for a financial product that is wrong for their circumstances—or, an out-and-out rip-off.

Having the talk

Senior woman and her daughter having a talk

Make fraud prevention a regular conversation topic with senior relatives.

The Allianz Life study found that the majority of caregivers are already talking to their senior loved ones about financial abuse and scams, but it's not always a comfortable topic. They say families "are hesitant to have frequent conversations for a variety of reasons, including the belief that it's none of their business, feeling that the elder is capable of managing their own finances, or belief that it makes the elder uncomfortable."

It can help to bring in an experienced financial professional to talk about ways to protect the senior's money. If you feel that your loved one is incompetent to manage their financial affairs, consult an elder care attorney about ways you can help, such as a joint checking account or power of attorney. An aging life care professional (also called a geriatric care manager) or financial advisor can help with these conversations.

The main thing is to talk. Reassure your loved one that people of every age should have these conversations. Say "These crooks are so skilled! It could happen to anybody!" Offer to be available 24/7 if your loved one wants to call you for an opinion if someone asks for money or tries to sell them something. Encourage them to ask for written material before agreeing to buy something from a salesperson. Assure them it's not rude to hang up on a suspicious caller—it's smart! Help them add their name to the "Do Not Call" registry. And encourage them to spread the word to their friends. Many seniors have a strong sense of justice. This is something they can do to fight the bad guys.

Above all, we all need to develop a protective layer of skepticism. It's a sad fact of life that these crooks are out there. They are so skilled and imaginative—imagine what they could do if they used those talents for good! But they don't, so it's our job to protect ourselves and our loved ones from their predation.

To learn more

AARP is a champion of elder financial abuse prevention, offering the Fraud Watch Network. Their site includes a set of videos and podcasts that you can watch with your loved one. It's a great way to hear these crooks in action and to hear the cautionary accounts of other seniors.

The National Consumers League runs the Fraud.org website (www.fraud.org), where you can learn about new and classic scams, report a scam and share your story, learn about the techniques crooks use against older adults and sign up for alerts.

Source: IlluminAge Communication Partners; copyright 2018

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