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Protect Vulnerable Adults From Scams

The doorbell would not stop ringing. Finally, 80-year-old Mary activated her video doorbell and asked hesitantly, “Who is it?”

“My name is Manny Pearson, ma’am. Your son, Jake, sent me. He’s in jail and needs bail money. No one else is answering their phone, so he asked me to come by and get a check from you. He needs $1,000 or they’re going to throw the book at him.”

“Oh, my goodness,” Mary said. She paused. “But my son’s name is John. No one calls him Jake.”

The man laughed. “I’ve called him that since college, ma’am. Guess he never shared that, huh? Anyway, if you could just write the check or give me your debit card, I can be on my way.”

Mary frowned. Her daughter handled her money, so she didn’t have a checkbook. But she had some mad money stashed away. Maybe she had enough. After all, she didn’t want her son sitting in jail. He had a wife and family to get to. Finally, Mary said, “I don’t have a checkbook, but I do have some cash. Would that would be alright?”

“Sure,” the man said smoothly. “Then we can get John out of jail licked-split. He’s scared ma’am. Real scared.”

Mary went to her secret place and pulled out the money hidden there. Slowly, she counted. She had just $300. She walked back to the doorbell device and said, “I’m sorry. I only have $300. I will have to go to the bank to get more. But my daughter has to co-sign my checks. If you’ll just wait a minute, I’ll call her.” There was no response. “Hello?  Are you there?” Mary peered out the door and she saw a man walking away from her home.

Quickly, Mary walked to her phone and called her daughter. “Diana, the strangest thing just happened. A man came to the door and said John was in jail and he needed $1,000 to get him out. We need to get to the bank and get that money.”

“Mother, is the man still there? Did you let him into the house? Did you give him any money?”

“No, he left. But we need that money to get John out of jail.”

Diana said gently. “Mom, I’m coming over, then we’re going to call the police. John is on vacation in Hawaii, remember? Besides, if he needed bail money, he wouldn’t ask you, he’d ask his wife or one of his children. That was a scammer. Thank God you didn’t answer the door.”

According to a recent study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the financial exploitation of older adults, or financial elder abuse, has become a serious health problem. Nearly one out of every 18 adults have been the victim of a financial scam or fraud, and those are just the crimes that have been reported. There are many reasons older adults are targeted, including:

  • Social isolation. Senior citizens tend to be less active, with limited social interaction. A stranger at the door or a phone call in the afternoon are welcome distractions. Scammers are skilled at befriending lonely adults and taking advantage in the name of “friendship.”
  • Access to significant funds. Many older adults have large retirement or pension funds, healthy bank accounts, or high value assets. Scam artists are practiced at tricking people into disclosing the information they need to uncover and access those assets, many times without the senior citizen’s knowledge.
  • Age-related mental impairments. Older adults are more likely to suffer from deficits that include dementia, forgetfulness, confusion, and related cognitive problems. As a result, they are more vulnerable to undue influence and fear tactics. Many times, they don’t even remember that they have disclosed inappropriate information.
  • Failure to report losses. Many seniors are embarrassed that they have been scammed, so they refuse to report it to the authorities. In other cases, they may fail to report losses simply because they don’t realize that they have been scammed.

It is important to acquaint senior family members with the more popular scams that occur in this country and encourage them to report any suspicious contacts.

Common scams include:

  • The bequest. An email or letter is received via email or mail from someone claiming to be the attorney for a long-lost relative who has left the targeted senior a large bequest. To claim the funds, the senior must provide their bank account number so the money can be transferred. When that account number is provided, the scammer removes all funds from the senior’s account.
  • The lottery. A phone call alerts an older adult that they have won a million dollars. They are instructed to meet the contest official at their bank, where the official will supposedly deposit the winnings into their account. When the adult meets the contest official, they are either robbed outright, forced to remove all monies from their accounts under threat, or asked for bank account information that the contest official later uses to empty the account. In the alternative, the “winner” is contacted by phone or mail and asked to pay a “processing fee” to claim the prize. After the scammers take their “fee,” the credit card or bank account number provided may be sold on the black market and/or used for other fraudulent purposes.
  • The IRS. The senior citizen receives a call from someone who claims to be employed at the Internal Revenue Service. Sometimes, they claim monies are owed and must be paid immediately to avoid arrest. Other times, scammer claim there is a problem with a recent tax return and request a Social Security number and birth date to verify identity. That information is then used to file a false return and claim a refund, or to commit identity theft.
  • The errant relative. The elderly adult is contacted in person, by telephone, or via email, and asked to assist a relative who has been arrested, in an accident, left stranded in another country, or kidnapped. It is made clear that the matter is urgent and the person’s life may be at risk. If help is not provided immediately, dire consequences may result.

There are, of course, many more fraudulent schemes that target vulnerable adults. Scammers are creative. They are also skilled at seizing opportunities as they arise. That’s why it’s important to take steps to protect seniors and their assets. Home security, joint accounts, powers of attorneys, conservatorships, and income trusts are all strategies that can be employed to protect finances.

However, it is important to be proactive. Acting after a senior has been scammed rarely makes them whole. In fact, it often leaves them financially and emotionally devastated.

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