Financial exploitation is one of the most pervasive and insidious forms of elder abuse. To prevent it, you need to understand how common scams and fraud schemes work and what makes seniors vulnerable to them. Also necessary? A healthy dose of vigilance and a certain degree of know-how. Safety.com presents this guide to empower anyone seeking a deeper understanding of identity theft, what makes seniors susceptible, and how to prevent yourself and your loved ones from becoming victims.
Who is Targeting Seniors?
“Everyone and his puppy,” answers Neal O’Farrell, Executive Director of the Identity Theft Council. O’Farrell spoke to Safety.com about the landscape of fraud and his top-level experience, including personal interviews with thieves in prison and in the Witness Protection Program.
You don’t need a big investment to be a cybercrook, he says, but it’s highly effective and profitable. Sophisticated efforts are perpetrated by syndicates around the globe, from small gangs, to Indian call centers, to the Mafia and Russian and Albanian organized crime. These aren’t petty criminals, but smart perpetrators who know how to manipulate people on a massive scale. They adapt their methods to changing times and technology.
What Makes Seniors Vulnerable to Identity Theft?
Younger generations are quick to chalk up scam susceptibility to memory loss and cognitive decline, but there’s more to it than that. With the advent of the internet, there are pronounced generational differences that fraudsters can exploit.
Consider this scenario: You’re an older adult, living alone, reliant on social security benefits. When the phone rings, you answer it – you grew up without Caller ID, and you’re more willing and comfortable to talk on the phone than texting, using a computer, or even checking voicemail. The caller says they’re from the Social Security Administration, and that you’ve made a mistake that puts your social security benefits at risk. You need to issue a payment now or your benefits will stop. Understandably, you go into fight or flight mode. Did you make a mistake? What if the benefits stop? Even if you don’t think that’s true, should you make the payoff just to make sure you can keep supporting yourself.
“One crook told me if he can get a senior on the phone, he has their money in his pocket,” says O’Farrell. “If you’re in your 70s or 80s and come from a generation of trust and you get a charming sweet-talker on the phone, you’ll more likely than not fall for something… there’s social engineering going on here.”
How Can Seniors Protect Themselves from Scams?
O’Farrell gives two main suggestions: One, stop doing things that make it easy for someone to take advantage of you, and two: remember to stop doing those things! The latter rule is a tongue-in-cheek nod to “senior moments,” but the former calls for a longer explanation.
To learn more, Safety.com reached out to Genevieve Waterman of the National Council on Aging (NCOA). Waterman leads the NCOA’s Economic Security Initiative and provides technical assistance to the Center for Benefits Access’ Benefits Enrollment Centers, which use person-centered strategies in a coordinated, community-wide approach to help low-income seniors access benefits.
Waterman echoed O’Farrell’s acknowledgment of manipulation: Fraudsters “use mind tricks to make it seem more real. They’ll prey on the heartstrings.” She also pointed on that victims of fraud often don’t want to talk about it, which can make the problem worse. “They think, ‘I’m an old wise person, why did I fall for this?” She also points out that psychological harm comes along with financial exploitation, and senior victims may be under duress not to divulge their victimhood, especially if a caretaker or family member is behind it. With the combined expertise of O’Farrell, Waterman and the NCOA, we’ve put together the following realistic and personal approaches to protecting seniors from financial exploitation.
Tips & Best Practices for Preventing Identity Theft
- Government agencies do not conduct business over the phone. Do not believe any callers who claim to be from the IRS, Social Security, Medicare or any other governmental agency.
- When speaking to a senior citizen, callers frequently impersonate a grandchild or claim a grandchild is in danger in order to ask for money to help with a hospitalization or other emergency. If someone calls you on the phone and claims a loved one is in danger, hang up the phone and verify the situation with one of your relatives.
- If something seems too good to be true, then it probably is. This includes, but is not limited to, claims of sweepstakes winnings and inheritances,
- Do not provide any money or personal information to strangers over the phone – including charities. If you are inclined to send money, gather information, hang up the phone, and verify that the charity is real. Then, find a way to send money that leaves a documentation trail (mail or email) so that the transaction can be traced if there are any issues.
- Take in your incoming mail quickly. When you send outgoing mail, drop it into a mailbox that’s inaccessible to thieves.
- In your home, keep your financial and personal documents in a safe place. Behind lock and key is best.
- Participate in a social network (perhaps at the local senior center) to stay in the know about the latest news and scams.
- Ask friends and family members to remind you about all of these directions! You can also use devices, notes and calendars to help remind you.
If You Think You’ve Been Targeted By Fraud, What Should You Do?
If you suspect you’re being swindled or you’ve already sent money to a crook, the first step is to take a deep breath. After all, you can’t make your best decisions when you feel panicked. You have rights, resources and the laws are on your side. Even the smartest, savviest people occasionally fall victim to deception, and today’s schemes are quite advanced. Don’t be afraid to seek help.
- Don’t think the scammer will stop if you send them a payment. It’s tempting just to send along a “hush money” to stop a scammer from bothering you. However, once they get your money they are likely to push for more, and depending on how you send the money, they’ll probably have access to even more of your information, which they will happily help themselves to.
- Write down or gather all of the evidence of what has happened. Include dates, phone numbers, what you talked about, what time they called, absolutely anything you can remember.
- Determine the nature of the theft. Check your credit reports and all of your bank accounts. In some cases, you might find there’s only been an accident or a case of mistaken identity, and you won’t have much to worry about at all. In other cases, you might find out that more damage has been done.
- Perform damage control. The scope of this step depends on the nature of the theft. You might contact your bank and follow their instructions, freeze your credit, change your passwords and/or complete the other steps listed on this guide.
Looking Out For A Loved One? Spot Red Flags & Other Ways to Help
Many seniors keep their financial affairs private, and for good reason – a majority of financial exploitation is perpetrated not by strangers, but by caretakers and family members who believe they won’t get caught. So, instead of pressuring your loved ones to give you unfettered access to their accounts, consider these other alternatives.
- Remind seniors about the best practices outlined previously. Even if you feel like a broken record, it bears repeating.
- Junk mail is not always harmless. A sudden increase in bills, warning notices or preapproved credit offers are a strong indication that something is going on. If the last time a person applied for a credit card was decades ago, credit bureaus don’t usually reach out to them. But if they have new lines of credit, the bureaus and offers will start actively courting them.
- Remember that no one wants to admit they’ve been scammed. It is stigmatized, especially for independent people who feel ashamed that they fell prey to a scheme. Be understanding, remind them that crooks are deceptive and savvy, and focus on solutions instead of contributing to feelings of self-deprecation.
- Play detective. Parents in particular may hesitate to tell their adult kids about problems they’re facing in their personal lives. Their other caretakers, friends, neighbors or healthcare professional might be able to tell you more.
- Angle yourself as a third-party viewer of their personal finances. You don’t need to take control over everything or have a joint account – just ask if you can go to the bank with them to overview outgoing payments and help them opt into any fraud alerts and notifications.
- Help them get on the National Do Not Call Registry to curb incoming unwanted phone calls (this won’t stop all robocalls, but it can help staunch the number of calls from strangers in general).