“I have a secret to tell you,” my then 97-year-old father told me on the phone, in a conspiratorial whisper, “and you mustn’t tell anyone. I’m going to win half a million dollars tomorrow.”
I hoped my sigh wasn’t too obvious. Over the last year, my intelligent, worldly father had become vulnerable to sweepstake scams. As soon as he responded to one offer, more mail with seductive promises would arrive. No amount of reasoning on my sisters’ and my parts would change his mind.
We finally controlled the volume by asking the receptionist at his assisted living facility to set aside his junk mail and one of us would go through it when we visited.
This is just one example of how the elderly can easily be manipulated into spending thousands of dollars. The FBI estimates that seniors lose an estimated $3 billion every year to financial scams. Scammers go after seniors because they believe many older adults have a significant amount of money sitting in their accounts.
And it’s not just wealthy seniors who are targeted, but also low-income older adults. And not just by strangers, either, but sadly by manipulative friends, acquaintances and most of all— family members. The woman who cleaned my father’s home before he moved into an assisted living facility regularly sends him fancy cards she makes herself. My father believes she paid big bucks for these cards. Because she’s chronically hard up, he feels guilty and sends her checks. He has also loaned her money, which she has never paid back.
Financial scams can be difficult to prosecute, so they’re considered a low-risk crime. However, they can leave seniors in a highly financially fragile position.
According to the National Council on Aging (NCOA), here are five of the most common telephone, written, or internet scams that target the elderly:
Sweepstakes and lottery scams
Scammers inform the senior that they have won a lottery or sweepstakes of some kind and need to make some sort of payment to unlock the prize.
Government impostor scams
People who are pretending to be from the IRS, Social Security Administration, or Medicare will call unsuspecting seniors, saying they owe taxes or that benefits are in danger of being cut off. My father has received letters to this effect. Some include a countdown clock, which makes my father very anxious.
Medicare/health insurance scams
Scammers pose as Medicare representatives and claim that benefits will be cut off in order to get older people to give them their personal information, which they use for fraud.
According to The New York Times, both political parties target seniors with manipulative tactics to raise money. They send phony bill notices and official-looking correspondence, hidden links to unsubscribe, and pre-checked boxes that automatically repeat donations. Or they use subject lines like “Final Notice” that look as if actual bills are at risk of defaulting.
Robocallers use sophisticated phone technology to dial large phone numbers from anywhere in the world. Some may claim that a warranty is expiring on their car/electronic product and need payment to renew it.
Five strategies to reduce scams
- Communicate regularly with your senior. You can’t influence without being in regular contact.
- Train your elderly parent not to respond to contribution requests over the phone, or just hang up if the call is from a stranger. My father has learned to say, “I do not make donations over the phone.”
- Unlist your elderly relative’s phone number.
- Unsubscribe your parent on opt-out lists with the Direct Marketing Association at https://www.dmachoice.org/. After they are unsubscribed, honest vendors won’t send junk mail, and your parent will know that what arrives is likely a scam.
- Gradually and respectfully try to convince your senior to allow one adult child to take over the bulk of their finances, giving them a limited “allowance” to reduce risk. Make sure the family member is trustworthy. Sadly, according to the NCOA, over 90% of all reported elder abuse is committed by an older person’s own family members— most often their adult children, followed by grandchildren and nieces and nephews.