This Holiday Season, Protect Senior Loved Ones from Charity Fraud

Related topics: Caregiver Skills, Seniors and the Internet, Financial

Man at his computer with credit card


Myra was helping Dad balance his checkbook, when she noticed he'd written a sizeable check to an unfamiliar organization. Dad said a disabled veteran called asking for a donation to help other injured veterans. Myra looked up the organization on a charity ratings website, and found that they collected millions of dollars annually—but gave only two percent of that to veterans' hospitals. Dad, a veteran himself, said, "It seemed like such a good cause, and the guy was so interested in my military experience…."

When Ben arrived at Mom's place, Mom was at the computer with her credit card out. She'd received an email with a link to a heart-rending video of refugee children and a plea for donations to help them before it was too late. Ben took a closer look. The "Refugee Relief" organization had a Gmail address and an offshore phone number. The video was on YouTube, with no connection to the email's sender. "Mom, this is a fraud—don't give them any money," said Ben. "But Ben," said Mom, "Look at these poor kids!"

Doing something for others is central to the holiday season, and many of us choose to make charitable contributions at this time of year. There are so many worthy causes—how to decide? We see infomercials on TV, receive phone calls, emails and mailings on behalf of children's charities, veterans groups, police and firefighter support organizations, animal welfare groups, disease research charities, groups providing aid to victims of natural disasters ... the list is long.

Unfortunately, for every legitimate charity, a slew of impostors are ready to take advantage of our compassion and generosity. Seniors may be particularly vulnerable to these con artists. They may have money on hand, and a desire to make a difference in the world. They may be home during the day, with more time to listen to a solicitor, read pitch letters or watch an infomercial. Many older adults find it hard to hang up on a solicitor. Seniors with Alzheimer's or other memory problems are especially vulnerable—and a study from the University of Iowa found that seniors with no signs of dementia may nonetheless have deterioration of the particular area of the brain that controls belief and doubt. In October 2015, Rush University Medical Center experts even declared that "age-related financial vulnerability" is a specific clinical syndrome.

When you want to help

If you suspect your senior loved one is giving money to a bogus charity, you'll no doubt want to step in—but many families report that it's hard to have these conversations! Your loved one may be embarrassed at having been fooled, or may resent your intrusion into their personal life.

The first step might be to have a conversation with your loved one about the issue in general. Honor your loved one's good heart and their desire to make a difference. Then tell them you've been reading up on the topic, perhaps as you decide about your own charitable giving. Share what you've learned: While many legitimate charities seek donations in magazines, on TV, by phone or through the mail or email, scam artists also use these techniques. Although these crooks claim the donations they collect from good-hearted people go to a good cause, in reality, the money ends up supporting their own lavish lifestyle. They may or may not donate even a miniscule amount to the causes they claim to support.

Remind your loved one that glossy brochures and TV commercials that tug at the heartstrings don't mean a charity is legitimate. And phone callers may not be who they say they are. Phony charities use paid employees—the classic "boiler room" workers—who will say anything to get your money. They work from a script designed to pressure and guilt people into making a donation.

Your loved one's self-esteem may take a hit if they've fallen for a con artist's pitch. Reassure them that they aren’t alone. Many, many Americans have been taken in by fake charities. Indeed, history shows that as soon as the U.S. Post Office was founded, phony charity solicitations were quick to follow! The Post Office, the Federal Trade Commission, the FBI and other agencies can help us avoid donating our hard-earned money to these con artists.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) provides a list of red flags to look out for. Avoid any charity that:

  • Refuses to provide detailed information about its identity, mission, costs, and how the donation will be used.
  • Won't provide proof that a contribution is tax deductible.
  • Uses a name that closely resembles that of a better-known, reputable organization.
  • Thanks you for a pledge you don't remember making.
  • Uses high-pressure tactics like trying to get you to donate immediately, without giving you time to think about it and do your research.
  • Asks for donations in cash or asks you to wire money.
  • Offers to send a courier or overnight delivery service to collect the donation immediately.

Do your homework before you give

Seniors having a discussion.

Suggest that your loved one share information about charity fraud with their friends. Many seniors have a well-developed sense of justice, and spreading the word in this way can prevent the siphoning of donations to truly worthy groups and causes.

Offer to help your loved one research a charity to discover whether it is on the level. Fortunately, there are places where you can check out a charity's record, right from the comfort of your own computer:

Visit the Federal Trade Commission's charity scams consumer information page to find much more information. If you think your loved one has been the victim of a charity scam, you can file a complaint with the FTC at www.ftccomplaintassistant.gov. Remind your loved one that the FTC says, "Your complaints can help detect patterns of wrong-doing and lead to investigations and prosecutions."

If your loved one has Alzheimer's or other memory or thinking problems, it might be time to discuss a guardianship or other financial oversight. Experts tell us that falling prey to fraud is often the first sign that a senior is unable to take care of their own affairs.

Americans truly give from the heart at this time of year. When it comes to holiday giving, it's best to not only use your heart … but also your head!

Source: IlluminAge Communication Partners; copyright 2015 IlluminAge