Financial fraud is devastating to everyone, but it can hit the elderly especially hard.
“If you’re 20 [years old] and something happens to you financially, you have a long time to make a difference,” says Mackey McNeill, founder, president and CEO of Mackey Advisors. “If you’re older and not able to go back to work and recover, having fraud perpetrated on you can significantly change the rest of your life.”
Fraudsters are increasingly setting their sights on older consumers, and the financial impact can be devastating— especially for those on a fixed income.
“Typically, that generation has more savings and valuable items and that’s where criminals go because that’s where assets and resources are,” says Gary McAlum, senior vice president of enterprise security at USAA. “The elderly tend to be more trusting and open to charity scams and might be less likely to report these details because they’re embarrassed or don’t remember the details.”
When it comes to protecting your loved ones, knowing whom to trust is important but tricky. “It’s not just criminals who have nefarious intentions, and it can be people who are the closest to the elderly,” says McAlum. “We have to have a very open mind to the potential of who might exploit seniors.” The elderly also need to be wary of anyone taking a sudden interest in their finances, like certain family members, friends or people from organizations like their churches.
Scams targeting the elderly come in many different forms: sometimes it’s adding a name to a bank account, other times it’s a telemarketer selling a fake investment or product that requires a credit card number or other information that can be used later for identity theft. Some people ask for money outright after establishing an emotional connection through email or phone.
While you can’t be there all the time to watch over grandparents, there are precautions you can take:
Often, the elderly don’t want to give up their independence, which makes communication important. “Tell your elderly loved ones that you can get a second opinion with finances just like you do with doctors,” says San Diego-based certified public accountant Leonard Wright.
“There are ways to communicate with the elderly so they don’t feel like you’re taking over.” This could also mean explaining the importance of calling another family member before sending any money to a third party or agreeing to a new contract, credit card or investment.
Always Ask for More Information
The best protection against financial fraudsters is to be skeptical of anyone asking for personal or financial information. If you ask for details in writing, all that requires is providing an address.
“No matter how good the deal sounds, if they’re serious, they’ll provide that information in writing. But more often than not, if you’re not expecting it, it’s probably a scam,” says McAlum.
Check for New Activity
“If there are funds that are disappearing from accounts, bills going unpaid or things disappearing from the house, that could be a sign that the loved one is confused about their finances or it could mean there’s another person in the picture,” says McAlum. Also look for changes in the grandparent’s spending habits or an unwillingness to talk about money.
Be suspicious of new people in your grandparents’ life. “It’s not to say everyone’s intention is evil, but you’ve got to be very vigilant about who’s involved in that person’s life, especially if you see power of attorney changes, names added to bank accounts, updating wills, refinancing mortgages — those are really big red flags.”
Create Checks and Balances
When it comes to maintaining an elderly person’s finances, it’s good to have back up.
“Have another set of eyes look over everything to protect the loved one’s assets,” says McAlum. When senior citizens begin to lose their independence in other aspects of their life, that’s when they can be very susceptible and vulnerable to exploitation.
Many people are uncomfortable talking about money and it’s best to be sensitive during this discussion. “Talk about turning over the finances to a trusted family member — that’s the optimum route, but there’s a huge trust piece,” says McNeill. Consider putting your grandparent’s assets in an environment where they can’t give anything away on a whim, she says, like a trust or a dual-signature account.
“Since every situation is different, try to work through a family doctor, clergy member or a trusted friend,” advises McAlum. “If someone’s cognizant skills are deteriorating, you might have to work through a more legalized approach to establish a guardianship.”
Buy a Shredder
“The best security tool you can have in your arsenal is a shredder,” says McAlum. Have them shred anything they receive in the mail that might have preapproved loan paperwork and requires them to fill in information.
Install Security Software
The elderly are becoming more active online, and that’s every scammer’s dream. It’s easy to attach malware to emails or include fake links in a message.
“Have basic security software and antivirus installed on computers and laptops if they’re online a lot,” says McAlum.
Join the ‘Do Not Call’ List
A phone is another way for a fraudster to take advantage of an elderly person, says McAlum, so take away the threat by adding a grandparent’s number to “Do Not Call” lists at www.donotcall.gov.
“Anyone who’s calling you with a great deal, it’s not legitimate,” says McAlum, “and if they’re claiming to be your bank, hang up and call your bank back at a number you know.”
Monitor Credit and Accounts
It’s important to check grandparent’s credit report and accounts frequently, according to James Simmons, director of Fraud Detection and Prevention at Capital One. “Look at statements to make sure everything is correct. The consumer needs to be an active participant.”
Family members should also be on the lookout for red flags like new people becoming interested in your grandparent’s finances, a grandparent suddenly living beyond his/her means or a lack of knowledge about finances. “Having family members help monitor the elderly’s finances is a great thing, as is encouraging the elderly to regularly manage their finances so they can look for red flags,” says Simmons.
Inform Law Enforcement
“If you feel that you’re the victim of a scam, tell someone, and if they don’t have someone in their circle, they can always call law enforcement,” says McAlum.