We all get them, those emails telling us that we have an inheritance from an unknown relative – a really rich one – who left millions to us! Usually, that surprise relative is a prince in a foreign country we never knew was related to us.
All we have to do is respond! Oh, I forgot, you do have to send some money to cover the expenses of that rich relative. Then, you’ll get your millions.
No one would be silly enough to actually believe it, would they? Yes, some do and more often than not it is a senior who is not tech savvy and did not grow up with the kind of overwhelming cynicism and skepticism that has become the norm anymore.
I am only one person, what can I do?
Everyone is just one person. Somehow, despite that fact, things get done, often very well.
In 2017, the Bradenton Herald reported that Phillip Deeb got a letter from his bank saying his accounts had been drained and closed. Then the IRS told the Deebs that they owed thousands. See the Fox News story on this example of financial abuse of the elderly.
How could this happen? Simple. The Deebs were victimized by a con artist who claimed he would invest the Deebs’ retirement funds and make a lot of money for them.
No, the Deebs didn’t get all of their money back, but the con artist was arrested, convicted and jailed so that at least for a while he can’t steal from anyone else.
Yes, you can do something!
Amazingly, up to 37% of seniors have experienced some version of financial abuse. Nationwide, victims of this type of financial abuse lost almost three billion dollars. The actual numbers are likely higher as many are too embarrassed to report their losses and they know the money is lost and unrecoverable. Many senior adults do have the mental sharpness to somewhat protect themselves, however, they are faced with a combination of problems, including declining mental acuity, new and unfamiliar technologies, and more wealth than younger people have. Some have already suffered the loss of a spouse and are vulnerable to appeals that make them feel loved and significant again.
New laws are being passed every year with a focus on protecting those most susceptible to abuse, but as fast as new laws are written, new loopholes are found and creative schemes are developed. What is needed is an awareness of certain patterns in the schemes used and the resources that are available to help.
Learn the Tricks
One in nine seniors reports having been financially abused in only the past twelve months. It is estimated that only one in forty-four cases is ever reported, making it likely that a very high number of seniors are silent victims. For more details and an article by the National Adult Protective Services Association, click here. The new variations on the theme of trickery and thieving will always be coming at us, but they tend to fall within a relatively few categories and can be avoided with a few steps of basic caution.
Know the basics
One of the great problems is that the average 15 yer old knows more about the Internet and the use (and abuse) of social media and online platforms than either their parents or the grandparents. A place to get started with the necessary learning is the site Internet basics for Seniors. While this 9iis a commercial site, it has good and helpful information.
Start with the assumption that it isn’t true
The email or letter or call is likely not real. No, you didn’t win a European lottery you never entered. No, you didn’t receive an inheritance from a wealthy relative you never knew about who lives in Nigeria. No, those beautiful Russian women are not really looking for an American husband.
Simply put, you need to be skeptical. Ask questions. Verify credentials. Doubt the claims. Check with family, friends, advisers and even law enforcement.
Get a written contract
A written contract is not a showing of distrust, it is actually a way of showing the greatest trust – you are willing to put your intentions and your expectations down clearly and completely in writing backed by your signature. If someone isn’t willing to sign a written contract, always ask why not. Putting your name and reputation on the line is meaningful. But, as always, a contract must clearly say everything, and I mean everything, that is promised and that is a part of the deal. Forget the “you can trust me,” if it is not in writing.
And the deal should not include any up-front money or “deposit” in most situations. Most reputable contractors will start and many finish without requiring a down payment for materials or labor.
Don’t open the door
Sure, their car broke down just a block away and they need to make a call, use a bathroom or get out of the heat. It may sound cruel and unChristian to not be hospitable. But most would rather wear the label of “unhospitable” than “victim.” Do not invite the home invaders into your home. If someone needs help, make the call for them while they wait.
Check out the National Council of Aging for more information. They have an excellent article online on the Top Ten Financial Schemes Targeting Seniors.
Never give out personal information over the phone or the Internet
Scammers will call about Medicare or Social Security plan changes and ask for your plan and personal information. While Medicare is currently in the process of changing Medicare numbers, remember that your current Medicare number includes your Social Security number. However, even after you get a new Medicare number, protect your new number as carefully as your old one. A stolen Medicare number can be used to process fraudulent claims.
Ignore calls or pop-up messages soliciting access to your computer. This is especially important if you bank online since your computer may get a virus planted that will allow access to your passwords and accounts. Microsoft never calls to warn people that their computer may be compromised. NEVER! Viruses, keystroke programs that transmit your keystrokes (including passwords) and ransomware programs that will lock up your computer and its data until you pay are among only a few of the headaches that can be downloaded in seconds.
And no, the FBI, the local police and the IRS do NOT call and demand money immediately or you will be arrested. Know it is a scam if that happens.
No one can guarantee 10% returns, much less anything higher
Many of the “investment” advisers who promise or even suggest they can get you huge returns are running a Ponzi or pyramid scheme that will collapse with huge losses. If you are unsure what that means, just look up Bernie Madoff and his amazing theft of over $64 billion from stars, charities, associates and even trusted friends.
Avoid Becoming a Victim
Turn to your family members and friends
Those who know you best can often help you the most, especially when time is short and the stakes are high. Call on your trusted family and friends. While their family and friends can be the worst enemies of the elderly at times, far more often they can and will effectively help. Don’t become a victim who is then embarrassed to have to admit to family and friends that you were conned.
Don’t be afraid to seek advice
There are many resources for victims and even for those seeking to avoid becoming victims of criminal or fraudulent activity. On our website are several such resources including Helpful Links and Numbers for Seniors. In addition, check out the resources at LendEDU.com that offers tips and advice on protecting senior citizens from credit fraud, identity theft, and general fraudulent activity. LendEDU has a guide, Protecting Credit Reports, Scores, and Finances for Senior Citizens with additional ideas and resources to help seniors check their credit reports and their financial accounts.
The American Association of Retired Persons, the AARP, also may be able to help. AARP has a wide variety of articles intended to educate its constituency about topics to help them and offers many other programs for seniors. Included among them are a fraud tip site, many discounts and programs to help seniors, and even an assistance locator that helps you find nearby help for food, housing, transit, health, finances, care, education, work and legal issues.
Alternatively, to find the contact information for Adult Protective Services in your area, call the Eldercare Locator, a government sponsored national resource line, at: 1-800-677-1116, or go to their website at: www.eldercare.gov.
However, it someone you know is in immediate danger or is being victimized at present, call 911 or your local police for immediate help. There are times when the threat is immediate and significant and law enforcement should be called.
Have a professional adviser
While a financial adviser is not always specially trained to spot, discover and solve all financial elder abuse, many can spot things you might overlook and all should have more understanding of financial fraud than the average senior. This is an often-overlooked benefit of having a professional financial adviser. If you do not have one, a call or a visit to your local bank may give you an opportunity to sit down with a bank representative who can give you advice and guidance without cost. They are trained to spot many of the scams that are used to victimize seniors.
However, even trusted advisers can surprise you. The list of persons who have victimized seniors shows why the task of preventing abuse is so difficult. The list includes:
• Family members
• Trusted acquaintances
• Bank employees
• Nurses, and even
Regardless, whether friends, family, neighbors, or professionals, it is helpful to have around you people who know to look for signs, such as:
• Bills piling up or past due notices appearing. When visiting a relative, friend or neighbor who is being helped with his or her finances, you might notice mail piling up or a few past due notices on the table. You should be concerned that the helper or caregiver is not paying the bills and may even be misdirecting the money.
• Financial activity the person couldn’t have done. Imagine multiple ATM withdrawals from a bedridden person’s account. What if charges from a retailer out of state show up for a person in assisted living who doesn’t shop online? Those may not be legitimate and may indicate a stolen or “borrowed” card.
• Odd purchases. Most seniors don’t go out and charge the newest video game console or iPhone. Purchases that are out of character could be a sign of financial abuse.
• Significant withdrawals. Bank employee are trained to watch for seniors making large withdrawals and will often direct those seniors to a bank officer at a desk for further assistance, just to be sure.
A Wide Variety of Crimes
Florida law provides substantial protection (as does the law of most states) of the elderly who may have begun to suffer impairments of aging. In Florida those persons are defined as “vulnerable adults.” Hillsborough County, Florida, has a program through its Elder Justice Center to help persons sixty (60) years or older. Additionally, the State of Florida has the Florida Department of Elder Affairs with available programs and resources for the seniors.
There is also federal legislation that is intended to assist seniors. The Elder Justice Act was passed in March 2010 to fund programs to prevent and fight abuse, neglect and exploitation. Upon its passage, the American Association of Retired Persons, the AARP, posted a descriptive article that remains available today.
The problem with passing laws to address fraud is that there can never be enough laws to prevent someone from ignoring the law. All laws can do is raise the risk by providing severe penalties for violations. Preventing abuse in the first place requires more than laws because the evil intentions of a con-artist and the cleverness of the criminal mind allow for an endless variety of less-than-blatant theft such as the unauthorized use of a senior’s property, mismanagement of a senior’s income for a personal benefit, persuading a senior to sign a fraudulent document in addition to simply outright theft.
Preventing abuse of the elderly is dependent upon the good will and attentiveness of those around seniors. Do your part.
About the Author
John Campbell has retired from a 40-year legal practice as a trial attorney in Tampa. He has served in multiple volunteer roles at Idlewild Baptist Church in Lutz, Florida, where he met Jesus. He began serving as the Executive Director of the Idlewild Foundation in 2016. He has been married to the love of his life, Mona Puckett Campbell, since 1972.