You’ve already won! I’m a prince who needs an American bank account to transfer tens of millions of dollars…
It’s hard to imagine anyone falling for one of these scams, even the elderly, even folks with diminished capacity due to Alzheimer's or dementia-causing diseases. These Nigerian sweepstake letters are so obvious, how could anyone ever fall for them? Unfortunately, it happens. The natural result of aging is a lessening speed of processing information. Dementia compounds this slowdown, making the elderly especially vulnerable to scams.
When it happens it can be such an embarrassment to the person duped that he or she is unwilling to admit it actually happened. This compounds the predator problem because perpetrators go scot-free. Some of the scams, however, are not as obvious and downright clever. Whether you're elderly or a supporter of an elderly person, knowing what to look for can help protect loved ones and yourself.
Most of us feel prepared for the “professional scammer,” those that troll for vulnerable elderly people, pulling an elaborate – or eloquently simple – scam on them. Sadly, such scams are commonplace. At the end of this article I’ve provided links to some of the more common scams of this type.
There is a danger in preparing only for “stranger danger.” As in child abuse cases, elderly loved ones are much more likely to be taken advantage of by someone they know, trust and love than by a total stranger. The only national study that attempted to define the scope of elder abuse found that the vast majority of abusers were family members (approximately 90%), most often adult children, spouses, partners, and others.
Seniors who live alone and are slowing physically and mentally are at a greater risk for someone to exploit them. Often it is someone who has regular contact with your loved one. They build a trusting friendship and then exploit the relationship. It may be a gardener, a caretaker, a neighbor, someone from church, but statistically it would most likely be a family member or longtime friend.
How to spot warning signs?
Any change in behavior should be noted — even if the change seems to be positive. For example, if someone is usually anxious and worrying and he or she suddenly becomes open and worry-free, this may seem like a welcome change, but it still warrants further exploration. Memory lapses and/or signs of disorganization also should be noted and checked out.
A change in financial behavior often signals that someone is under the influence of another. Obviously, checks written out to “cash” can be a red flag. This is where knowing past behavior is important. Maybe for years your loved one has written out checks to cash each month, but if the amount written to cash goes up drastically, find out what is going on. There may be a cause or charity that he or she is suddenly passionate about supporting. Mismanaging his or her checkbook, confusing financial concepts or signs of generally impaired judgment are signs of being susceptible to financial abuse.
How to protect?
Communicating regularly and being knowledgeable about your loved one’s routines and contacts is vital for protection. If you have permission and trust, ask to see a phone bill and look through the Caller-ID list on the phone. Note any strange number, especially if it shows up multiple times. If you’re familiar with their day-to-day routine and interactions you can spot when something out of the ordinary occurs.
It is important to inventory both bank and investment accounts, valuables in the home or if in a facility, in the person's room. After an initial inventory you will be able to quickly find any changes or missing items. I advocate, with your elderly loved one’s permission, setting up a web-based software program to monitor financial accounts. These web-based programs safely allow you and other trusted family members to monitor accounts, but do not allow access to the funds or ability to transfer funds. You can get a sense of normal spending habits and bills, watching for any transactions that fall outside normal patterns.
If a loved one is no longer able to handle his or her finances, begin the process of having a trusted family member or licensed professional become a part of the life-management process. It is wise to discuss the options with a lawyer experienced in elder care law to protect all parties involved.
If you suspect elder abuse, financial or otherwise, please report it immediately to Adult Protective Services. You do not have to investigate it further or bring proof — that is their responsibility. It is always best to be overly cautious and protective of those most vulnerable.
I like to say that the “smell test” is the best in these situations. If something smells fishy, report it. It may or may not be elder abuse, but reporting it is the right first step. Then, as much as possible, document and collect paper trails. Bank account records, credit card bills, phone records and any additional documentation compiled can be used to document and prove, or disprove, elder abuse. Report first; don’t wait until you have all your documents lined up. Every minute counts.
In my business and volunteer work in multiple retirement homes and facilities, I let folks know these scams are out there. Knowledge is the powerful first step in fighting this type of elder abuse.
Finally, we all have clicked on a link we wrongly thought was legitimate, or have not been as careful as we could be with our personal information. As you discuss these issues with your elderly loved one, be careful not to shame or condescend. Be honest with a flub you might have made. Shame and fear of condemnation from loved ones is a major reason transgressions go unreported. Be gracious as you talk this over and let them know they can call and tell you anything, anytime. We’re working together to protect each other and those we love most.
Below are a couple of helpful articles related to elder abuse scams. Please take the time to educate yourself and family members.