There’s a reason financial scammers so often prey on older people: Compared with the general population, they’re likely to have more money, to be more socially isolated, to suffer from cognitive decline and to lack tech savvy.
Targeting the vulnerable is as logical from the scammers’ perspective as it is revolting from ours. Sadly, fraudsters succeed to the tune of billions of dollars a year.
The pandemic has very likely worsened the problem. Elderly people have become more socially isolated than ever, making them easier targets in many cases. Statistics are hard to come by, in part because most cases are never reported. But FBI officials are concerned about a broad uptick in fraud and are prioritizing elder fraud.
Experts say younger family members can provide a bulwark against elder financial fraud. But getting older relatives to accept help—or even discuss the topic—can sometimes be challenging. For some, discussing money, even with family members, is taboo. And talking about vulnerability can raise fears of a loss of independence.
While it can be tricky to get the conversation going, it’s worthwhile, considering the sheer volume of scams out there. Here are some of the most common:
- IRS scammers: The perpetrators claim that their targets owe back taxes, and threaten them with property seizure or arrest unless they pay up.
- Robocallers: Callers, often from abroad, use fake phone numbers and claim to be from the Social Security Administration or elsewhere in the government as they seek personal information.
- Sweepstakes fraudsters: These scammers dangle “lottery winnings” in front of seniors, insisting that they pay a fee to have the money delivered.
- Fake tech support: Claiming to be from legitimate computer companies like Microsoft, Apple and Dell, these fraudsters try to convince targets that their computer has been infected with a virus. They request personal information and bank account numbers so they can “clear up” the problem.
- Grandchild scams: The perpetrators claim to be the target’s grandchild and be in a foreign prison or in another type of trouble. Sometimes the caller claims to be holding the target’s grandchild. They ask for money to resolve the situation.
- Romance frauds: Fraudsters contact victims through dating sites, build trust, then start requesting money –for hospital bills, visas or other supposed expenses.
The key to helping older loved ones avoid scams like these is creating and maintaining open lines of communication. And that requires you to recognize their independence and dignity. A scolding or condescending tone will raise fears related to the desire to remain independent and self-sufficient.
Speak to your loved ones as you’d like to be spoken to, Amy Nofziger, director of fraud victim support at AARP, told Barron’s in 2019: “Always start the conversation with empathy and compassion, and don’t be paternalistic.”
Experts like Nofziger recommend broaching the various kinds of fraud before they occur. Since fraudsters target countless people every day, work news about scams into regular conversation. This allows you to educate without condescending.
Older family members will often defer to younger ones when it comes to technology. Use that tendency: Teach them about caller ID. Offer to check whether their computer security software is up to date.
Once you’ve established a comfort zone to talk about financial fraud, consider role playing exercises. Older generations were taught to be polite on the phone, and they may be uncomfortable cutting scammers off and hanging up. Rehearse with them! You can even leave a written “refusal script” by the phone so they can simply read it if they become tongue tied.
In cases where a parent or grandparent simply won’t discuss the subject, consider recruiting a trusted third party such as a friend or minister, to join the discussion. Older loved ones may not accept your assistance at first. You protecting your elders is a role reversal, after all. But the stakes are high, so be patient, persistent and nonjudgmental. Don’t hesitate to contact us if you’d like to talk more about protecting your family from financial fraud.