What to Look For and How to Protect Yourself and Your Family from Fraud
Elder fraud is an act targeting older adults in which attempts are made to deceive with promises of goods, services, or financial benefits that do not exist, were never intended to be provided, or were misrepresented. Financial exploitation is the illegal or improper use of an older adult’s funds or property.
Losing money or possessions to scams, fraud, and exploitation can be especially devastating to older adults, who may not be able to earn back what they’ve lost. We know you’re concerned about the welfare of your older friends, family, and relations. At Pathways, your concerns are our concerns as well, so we have compiled a list of helpful information to assist in combating fraud.
Why Does Senior Fraud Happen So Frequently?
Older adults, family members, and caregivers should be especially aware of fraud schemes for the following reasons:
- Older citizens are most likely to have a “nest egg,” to own their home, and/or to have excellent credit—all of which make them attractive to con artists.
- 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.
- Older adults are less likely to report a fraud because they don’t know who to report it to, are too ashamed at having been scammed, or don’t know they have been scammed. Elderly victims may not report crimes, for example, because they are concerned that relatives may think the victim no longer has the mental capacity to take care of their own financial affairs.
- When an elderly victim does report the crime, they often make poor witnesses. Con artists know the effects of age on memory, and they are counting on elderly victims not being able to supply enough detailed information to investigators. In addition, the victim’s realization that they have been swindled may take weeks—or more likely, months—after contact with the fraudster. This extended time frame makes it even more difficult to remember details from the events.
- Older citizens are more interested in and susceptible to products promising increased cognitive function, virility, physical conditioning, anti-cancer properties, and so on. In a country where new cures and vaccinations for old diseases have given every American hope for a long and fruitful life, it is not so unbelievable that the con artists’ products can do what they claim.
Is There Anything I Can Look For to Check if a Family Member or Loved One is Being Scammed?
If you know or care for an older adult, here are some additional warning signs that may indicate they are the victim of financial abuse:
- There are unusual recent changes in the person’s accounts, including atypical withdrawals, new person(s) added, or sudden use of a senior’s ATM or credit card.
- The senior suddenly appears confused, unkempt, and afraid.
- Utility, rent, mortgage, medical, or other essential bills are unpaid despite adequate income.
- A caregiver will not allow others access to the senior.
- There are piled up sweepstakes mailings, magazine subscriptions, or “free gifts,” which means they may be on “sucker lists.”
Every state operates an Adult Protective Services (APS) program, which is responsible for receiving and investigating reports of elder abuse, neglect, and exploitation, and in most states, the abuse of younger adults with severe disabilities. APS is the “911” for elder abuse. Anyone who suspects elder abuse, neglect, or exploitation should make a report. The reporter’s identity is protected. APS services are confidential, so the reporter may not be able to learn the outcome of the case. APS respects the right of older persons to make their own decisions and to live their lives on their own terms. In cases of cognitive impairment, however, APS will take steps to protect the older person to the degree possible.
Is There Anything I Can Do RIGHT NOW to Prevent Fraud?
Here are some immediate, straightforward things you can do from the National Council on Aging and the Women’s Institute for a Secure Retirement to protect yourself or an older adult you know.
- Don’t Isolate Yourself – Stay Involved!
Isolation is a huge risk factor for elder abuse. Most family violence only occurs behind closed doors, and elder abuse is no exception. Some older people self-isolate by withdrawing from the larger community. Others are isolated because they lose the ability to drive, see, or walk on their own. Some seniors fear being victimized by purse snatchings and muggings if they venture out. Visit the Eldercare Locator to find services nearby that can help you stay active. Or contact your local senior center to get involved.
- Always tell solicitors: “I never buy from (or give to) anyone who calls or visits me unannounced. Send me something in writing.”
Don’t buy from an unfamiliar company and always ask for and wait until you receive written material about any offer or charity. Neighborhood children you know who are selling Girl Scout cookies or school fundraising items may be an exception, but a good rule of thumb is to never donate if it requires you to write your credit card information on any forms. It’s also good practice to obtain a salesperson’s name, business identity, telephone number, street address, mailing address, and business license number before you transact business. And always take your time in making a decision.
- Shred all receipts with your credit card number
Identity theft is a huge business. To protect yourself, invest in—and use—a paper shredder. Monitor your bank and credit card statements and never give out personal information over the phone to someone who initiates contact with you.
- Use direct deposit for benefit checks to prevent checks from being stolen from the mailbox
Using direct deposit ensures that checks go right into your accounts and are protected. Clever scammers or even scrupulous loved ones have been known to steal benefits checks right out of mailboxes or from seniors’ homes if they are laying around.
- Never give your credit card, banking, Social Security, Medicare, or other personal information over the phone unless you initiated the call
Misuse of Medicare dollars is one of the largest scams involving seniors. Common schemes include billing for services never delivered and selling unneeded devices or services to beneficiaries. Protect your Medicare number as you do your credit card, banking, and Social Security numbers and do not allow anyone else to use it. Be wary of salespeople trying to sell you something they claim will be paid for by Medicare. Review your Medicare statements to be sure you have in fact received the services billed, and report suspicious activities to 1-800-MEDICARE.
- Be skeptical of all unsolicited offers and thoroughly do your research
Be an informed consumer. Take the time to call and shop around before making a purchase. Take a friend with you who may offer some perspective to help you make difficult decisions. Also, carefully read all contracts and purchasing agreements before signing and make certain that all of your requirements have been put in writing. Understand all contract cancellation and refund terms. As a general rule governing all of your interactions as a consumer, do not allow yourself to be pressured into making purchases, signing contracts, or committing funds. These decisions are yours and yours alone.
Fraud Prevention Resources
The government and non-profit sector have several resources available to you to assist in not only stopping fraud but identifying it before it can affect those you care about. Check out the links below for additional information.
- The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Common Fraud Schemes webpage provides tips on how you can protect you and your family from fraud.
- The Department of Justice’s “Stop Fraud.gov” page is filled with valuable links directed at tips, information, and eldercare agencies to report fraud and abuse.
- Sign up for the National Do Not Call Registry, maintained by the Federal Trade Commission, to prevent telemarketers from calling (verification does require an email address).
- The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has a series of blogs that target many common concerns of older Americans, including scam awareness, how to work with your credit union to avoid scams, how to avoid one of the more common scams known as asset recovery, and finally how to develop a plan for diminished capacity and potential illness.
- The National Credit Union Administrations Fraud Prevention Center is filled with up-to-date information on scams, identity theft prevention, and online security tips.