How can we protect ourselves from scams targeting the elderly?
Numerous scams attempted toward the elderly are being tried each and every day across our country and sometimes, the bad guys are successful. They target older folks with money, and they relentlessly prey on them. Why are the elderly more susceptible and more likely to become victims of a scam? People who grew up in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s were generally raised to be polite and trusting. Con artists exploit these traits, knowing that it is difficult or impossible for these individuals to say “no” or just hang up the telephone.Loneliness also plays a role. Elders are often grateful to have someone to talk to – not suspecting that the "nice man" on the phone may be preying on them.
Women are twice as likely as men to fall for elder financial abuse, especially when they're in their 80s and when living alone. Any person with a Type A personality — someone who’s used to making quick decisions — will most frequently fall for "act now!" scams like fake lotteries. For any scam, an especially vulnerable time is the three years after some major stress, such as the loss of a spouse or a change in health or housing.
- Telemarketing or mail fraud. The U.S. Department of Justice estimates that dishonest telemarketers take in an estimated $40 billion each year, bilking one in six American consumers -- and the AARP claims that about 80% of them are 50 or older. Scammers use the phone to conduct investment and credit card fraud, lottery scams, and identity theft. Scammers also use the phone to sell seniors goods that either never arrive or are worthless junk.
- Getting unauthorized access to funds. In "Sweetheart Scams," alleged suitors woo older people, convincing them that love and care are their motivations for being included on bank accounts or property deeds; the suitors usually disappear along with the property.
- Charging excessive amounts of money. Smooth-talking scammers first convince seniors that they need some goods or services, then seriously overcharge them -- often hiding the high cost in extravagant schemes involving interest and installment payments. This tactic is often used for products that many older people might find essential to their quality of life, such as hearing aids and safety alert devices.
- Selling bogus items. Among the most egregious of false sales ploys is dubbed "Rock in a Box." In them, a senior is sweet-talked into buying an item, such as a new color television, at a bargain price, that comes in a box that's suspiciously sealed. What the box actually contains is a well-padded rock.
- Getting money or property through undue influence or fraud. Many seniors have been duped into parting with their homes or other property because a scammer convinces them it is for their own good. In one infamous case, three officials from the Detroit-based Guardian Inc. were found guilty of embezzlement and fraud after selling a client's house for $500 -- to the mother of a company officer. The company also collected excessive fees from its wards, sometimes as high as 70 percent of their Social Security checks.
- Using fraudulent legal documents. Many scammers cloak their actions in legal authority, procuring a power of attorney or will or other legal document giving them access to a senior's property. They get seniors to sign these documents by lying to, intimidating, or threatening the seniors.
- Making pigeon drops. In a typical pigeon drop, two suspects approach an older person -- often in a retail shopping area or near an ATM machine -- and claim they have just found a package or wallet containing a large amount of money. One of the suspects volunteers to check with a "boss" offsite to get advice on what to do with the found money, then reports that it came from an illegal source such as gambling or narcotics. The scammers offer to split the money -- but only after the older person shows "good faith" by producing money of his or her own. When the scammers send the senior to the "boss" to get the promised share of the money, the senior discovers that there is no boss and the suspects have disappeared.
- Faking an injury scenario. In this situation, a scammer claims to have a connection to law enforcement and tells an elder that a child or other close family member has been seriously injured or is in jail. The scammer then convinces the senior to give him or her money for medical treatment or bail.
- Offering false prizes. A good example of this is the "You have won the lottery" scam operating out of Canada. In this scam, thousands of older people were bilked into believing they became wealthy overnight, but had to wire money in "fees and taxes" before they could collect the grand prize. In a joint crackdown, the U.S. Attorney General and the Solicitor General of Canada estimated the take from this mass-marketing fraud to be about $1 billion a year. In another version of this scam, con artists tell an elder that he or she has just won a huge cash prize, but needs to send in some money -- usually in money orders -- to free it up from customs officials.
- Doing unsolicited home repair work. Typically working in teams of two or more, scammers scour neighborhoods with a high concentration of older residents, or even track recent widows and widowers through obituaries and death notices, then appear on their doorsteps claiming to spot something in need of fixing -- a hole in the roof or clogged drainpipe, for example. The scammers demand payment up front, and then often claim that their initial investigation reveals a more serious problem, with a more expensive solution. The "work" they do is unlicensed and often shoddy, such as applying paint to a roof to make it appear as if it has been tangibly fixed. In a twist on this scam, one alleged worker might distract the elder while another enters the house to steal money and other valuables.
- Virtual hostage. This scam is the scariest. You receive an unsolicited phone call from someone claiming that they are holding your son, daughter, or grandchild hostage. They tell you that unless you go to the bank and take out (example $10,000.00 - it could be any amount) or they will hurt your relative. They will tell you to stay on the line with them as you go to the bank to take out the money, and continue to stay on the line with you and give you instructions on where to send the money once you make the withdrawal. They keep you on the phone because they don’t want you hanging up and calling the police. They will do everything they can to try to scare you out of your money. Don’t give into them. Often these calls will come in under a blocked number or a phone number originating outside of the United States. If you receive a call from a caller who is blocking their ID or an international call that you’re not expecting, let the call go to your voicemail. Once the voicemail is received, you can listen to the message left. 10 times out of 10 the bad guys will not leave a message and will move on to try to find their next victim.
"Many of us have a parent, friend or neighbor who would benefit from a friendly reminder that seniors are prime targets for scam artists. We can help prevent them from losing their money, their dignity and their sense of security," said Ken Hunter, president and CEO of the Council of Better Business Bureaus.The elderly and their caregivers can take some steps and identify red flags to help protect their loved ones from scam artists and fraud against elders, according to the Better Business Bureau. These include:
- Getting involved with seniors' financial decisions as much as possible, especially when managing personal finances has become a burden.
- Never give out personal banking information, credit card numbers or social security numbers to someone who has called or to anyone who is not absolutely known to you. Popular scams include promising information on new health miracle product, a charitable donations, a family member in trouble, back-tax payments, or confirmation of a sweepstakes winning.
- If a salesperson will not provide written information about his or her company--including the company's name, address and telephone, do business with someone else.
- If someone calls from a "government agency" requesting money, ask for a certified letter on an official letterhead.
- Visit the homes of elderly relatives regularly. Ask about phone call they've received (con artists tend to develop relationships with their lonely victims and prey on their need for conversation.). And watch for a full mailbox. Large numbers of mailings from promotion companies could indicate that the elderly person is on a "sucker list."
- Never hire someone who shows up at your door. If you are told your plumbing needs to be fixed, or the roof needs repaired, the scammer may take money, but never do the work.
- Never make an "on-the-spot" decision. If the person says you have to take the offer immediately or you will miss the opportunity, it is likely a scam. Legitimate companies do not pressure people to act without taking the time to look into the deal.
- Avoid investments that promise huge profits with no risk. "High-return" investments are not guaranteed and legitimate companies will tell consumers about possible risks involved.
- Put your phone number on the National Do Not Call registry by phoning 1 (888) 382-1222 or visiting www.donotcall.gov (this will help to limit phone calls from telemarketers.)
Fraud against older Americans is a serious problem affecting thousands every year. These tips can help prevent the elderly from falling victim to scams. If you feel that you may be a victim of a potential scam, please contact your local law enforcement agency for assistance. The non-emergency line for the Louisa County Sheriff’s Office is (540) 967-1234.