Each year, older Americans (ages 60+) lose hundreds of millions of dollars due to scams of many types. Many everyday activities that our seniors are involved in, such as telephone calls, emails, and other online interactions are being used as an entry point for scamming activity. These scammers prey on our vulnerable seniors, costing this population the largest amounts lost than any other targeted age group.
To slow or even stop this exploitation of our aging population, we first must understand who the victims are, what form of scam is being perpetrated, and what steps can be taken to proactively avoid becoming a victim of scams.
Characteristics of the Vulnerable Senior
Not every aging person will fall victim to scams. However, there are characteristics that make one more likely to become a victim. These characteristics include:
- Advancing age
- Impaired cognitive ability or dementia
- Isolation from community, and
- Dependency on others for some or all daily tasks.
Additionally, the aging population tends to be more trusting of authority and will often not push back on the scammer or ask probing questions. They may also have savings, possibly a home, and good credit – all things that make them attractive to the scammer.
Methods of Scams
Scamming activity comes from all different avenues from strangers to paid caregivers, and even family members and friends. They use many different methods to try to trick the person into giving them money or other personal information.
- Phone calls from imposters claiming to be from the IRS or Social Security Departments are some of the most common and most lucrative scams.
- Email or text “phishing” that trick the person into giving personal information like credit cards or social security numbers can leave the senior as a victim of identity fraud.
- Romance schemes play on the isolation and loneliness of the aging population. This was especially prevalent during the pandemic when many seniors spent days without seeing friends, family, and other members of their community.
Unfortunately, those who are closest to our vulnerable aging adults can be the ones who take advantage of the dependency the senior may have on this person for caretaking or other needs.
- Pressure to grant authority can come from someone who is close to the senior like a caretaker or close relative. They will influence the aging person into signing over financial authority so the person then has the ability to spend the aging person’s money – likely spending it inappropriately.
- Isolating the aging person from other family, friends, and community members. This gives them full influence over the aging person, including coercing them into agreeing to whatever the scammer is after. Isolation keeps this mistreatment hidden from the very people who would recognize it and could put a stop to it.
Proactive steps to avoid victimization
- Estate Planning
Estate planning with an elder law attorney can help put trusted loved ones in a position of authority to help protect the aging person from undue influences. Documents like Power of Attorney, Health Care Proxy (also known as Medical Power of Attorney), and Revocable or Irrevocable Trusts can all be valuable tools to create structure for when the aging adult is not able to make sound decisions for themselves.
- Credit Freeze
For someone who may likely become a victim of identity theft, a credit freeze may be an appropriate proactive step. A credit freeze (also known as a security freeze) does not allow a creditor to access your credit file, thus preventing someone from opening accounts, including fraudulent credit cards, in the victim’s name.
- Reviewing Statements
Monthly and quarterly statements from health insurance, banks, credit cards, IRA accounts, etc. should all be monitored closely for suspicious activity. Medicare Summary Notices and Explanation of Benefits should be reviewed for incorrect charges and information.
Encourage the aging person to research whether the companies, offers or phone calls regarding “bills owed” are legitimate. Scammers usually try to force the aging person to “act now”. Encourage your elderly relatives to slow down on their reaction to be sure that the call for help or offer of great benefit are in fact real.
What to do if you or a loved one is a victim of scams
- Contact bank/financial institution
If you were tricked into giving your bank or credit card information, contact the financial institution to let them know of the fraudulent or unauthorized charge. Ask them to reverse the charge or give you your money back, and to open a fraud investigation on their end.
- Change login information
If you were a victim of online account hacking, change the username and password for the affected online account and any other account that you may use the same login information. Consider using a random password that includes both upper and lower-case letters, numbers, and symbols to make it less likely for a hacker to guess. Use different passwords for different accounts as well.
- Report the fraud
Reporting this type of activity can be both scary and embarrassing. Encourage the aging person to make a report, not only for their own benefit but to possibly help others from becoming a victim. A report can be made to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) at ReportFraud.ftc.gov. The FTC uses this information to recognize trends and to educate communities about what is happening in their specific geographic area.
The aging population can be a target of scams due to their circumstances and likelihood of falling victim to fraudulent claims and devious criminal scammers. We can help by guiding them to secure their accounts and creating a backup support system to help when they need it.
This article was written for AgeRight by Attorney Cathleen Summers. Founded by a nurse attorney and with offices in Acton, Burlington, and Sudbury, Massachusetts, Generations Law Group helps families navigate the complex areas of elder law to inform and protect loved ones of every generation.