World Elder Abuse Awareness Day was established to highlight the pervasive problem of elder abuse and the pressing need to address this issue and protect those who may be aggressively targeted and victimized. Even with government agencies and nonprofits developing and implementing programs to bring awareness to the growing problem of fraudulent activity, older adults still remain a primary target. Although scams, cons and other criminal activities may manifest in a variety of ways, the goal is singularly focused on tricking people into sharing their personal information, such as their social security, bank account, or credit card numbers. Recent efforts by federal agencies and other institutions provide some promising ways for older adults and their friends and family to help protect against victimization.
By Alexander Erickson and Lisa M. Brown, PhD, ABPP (Palo Alto University)
What can a scam look like?
Though there are many words for it such as conning or swindling, scamming has one clear definition: financial exploitation in a deceptive manner. Have you ever received a phone call or an email offering a free trip to some luxurious paradise, warning about your unpaid taxes, or threatening legal action if you fail to pay a fee to help your friend? With email, automated robocallers, and inexpensive international calling services, at some point or another most people will have received one or more fraudulent messages. In general, older adults are more likely to be targeted. Though new types of cons are always occurring and be used against anyone, the Department of Justice has identified some that are more likely to be directed at older adults. These include:
- IRS tax scams
- Medicare scams
- Grandparent scams
- Tech support scams
- Sweepstakes scams
- Dating website scams (also called sweetheart or affinity scams)
However, not all scams take place by email or telephone. Some occur person-to-person and across neighborhoods. For example, natural disasters, such as floods, hurricanes, and tornados, often damage homes in an entire community and require immediate action on the part of the homeowner to avoid further structural damage. It is common for “dupe-and-dash” workers to travel to areas where residents are likely to receive insurance payments and are in need of home repairs and tree removal.
Older residents are readily targeted because they tend to congregate in the same neighborhoods. Many may have handicap license plates or placards on their automobiles, or visible wheelchair ramps and lawn decorations placed on their property. Older adults who live alone or who have memory problems are particularly vulnerable to being financially exploited. The easy way to protect yourself from this type of scam is to not hire anyone who comes to your house and offers their services for hire. Often times, residents will be told that other neighbors have hired them and that they can receive a steep discount for services if they make a hefty down payment now. Legitimate workers will be licensed, bonded, and provide a written description of the fees for services.
What are ways to recognize scams?
Scammers can be crafty in their methods of exploitation, but you can be smart, catch them in the act, and protect yourself. Scammers tend to throw up some red flags, and sometimes recognizing them comes from asking yourself some simple questions:
- Am I being offered some sort of compensation for free or for a small fee?
- Am I being told that I have to act immediately and respond now to the person’s request?
- Is this too good to be true? (If it is, you’re probably right!)
- Do I think that this person requesting or offering me things to me might be untrustworthy?
- Is what this person saying inconsistent with my own knowledge or the advice of others who I trust and know?
- Do I want to respond to the person’s request because they seem nice, friendly, or sincere?
- Is the person claiming to be a relative or family friend, even though I do not know them? A “yes” to any of these questions means a “yes” to the presence of some red flags. Remember, a scammer wants you to give them what they want and will act in ways to ensure that this happens, whether it be by acting charming and complimentary, scary and threatening, or helpless and needy. Simply asking yourself “how truthful can I expect this person to be?” can be one of the most powerful tools in recognizing when you have become a potential target of financial exploitation.
How do I protect myself or my loved one?
Even though there are a variety of ways people can be conned, there are also a variety of simple ways you can protect yourself, such as:
For older adults
- Never give someone your private information.
- Be skeptical and take your time before making a decision.
- If you don’t know the person or company, do not pay for their services or give them money.
- Make sure to carefully read and understand all financial agreements or contracts.
- Trust your gut! If something does not feel quite right, then your intuition may be right.
- Check in with a family member or trusted friend before making a financial decision.
For family caregivers
- Regularly call or visit your family member.
- Set up a separate, joint bank account with account oversight for your family member as a safety net.
- Routinely check your family member’s credit reports.
For family members, friends, and close neighbors
- Get the facts on elder abuse and elder financial abuse, so you can recognize the signs.
- Consider if your family member or neighbor could be vulnerable to scamming.
- If you think your family member or neighbor is vulnerable, talk to them about it, express your concerns, and offer to help protect them.
- Be willing to be a contact for your family member or neighbor so they can consult with you first if they are unsure if they are being propositioned
- Contact the police or other authorities if you notice any suspicious activity or solicitation.
If you or a family member have already been a victim of financial exploitation, here are some suggestions on what to do next:
What if I have already been scammed?
- Call 9-1-1 if the scammer was physically present during the event, such as a door-to-door solicitor without a business license.
- Contact the Eldercare Locator through Adult Protective Services at 1-800-677-1116.
- Use the U.S. DOJ Elder Abuse Resource Roadmap at https://www.justice.gov/elderjustice/roadmap.
For additional information on older adult scams and ways to protect yourself, see:
- U.S. DOJ Senior Scam Alert: https://www.justice.gov/elderjustice/senior-scam-alert
- HHS Elder Justice: https://www.hhs.gov/aging/elder-justice/index.html
- CDC Brief: Addressing Financial Exploitation https://www.cdc.gov/aging/pdf/exploitation-cognitive-impairment-brief-july-2015.pdf
- IRS tax scam information: https://www.irs.gov/newsroom/tax-scamsconsumer-alerts
- FDIC Money Smart Computer-Based Financial Education Instruction Tool: https://moneysmartcbi.fdic.gov/
Alexander Erickson is a PhD graduate student in Clinical Psychology at Palo Alto University in California. He received his B.A. in Psychology and Philosophy from Luther College in 2016. He is currently a practicum student at the Palo Alto Veteran’s Affairs Community Living Center in Menlo Park, CA, and hopes to serve older populations through psychological intervention and assessment as well as through evaluating programs involved in elder care. His research interests focus on the creation and psychometric evaluation of psychological assessment measures, particularly in the context of aging populations.
Lisa M. Brown, PhD, ABPP is a professor of psychology and director of the Trauma Program at Palo Alto University. She is in California and is board certified through The American Board of Professional Psychology (ABPP) in Geropsychology. Dr. Brown’s clinical and research focus is on trauma and resilience, aging, health, vulnerable populations, disasters, and long-term care. Her research has been funded by the National Institute of Aging, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Department of Veterans Affairs Health Services Research and Development Service, USGS, and the Agency for Healthcare Administration.