By the time Cameron Huddleston’s mom was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, she had already donated a lot of money to different charities.
“Donating too much was an issue with my mom,” she said. “Her giving was definitely out of control.”
The telltale signs were easy to spot: Thank-you gifts from charities – calendars, return address labels, blankets, notepads and pens – were scattered throughout the house, and the mailbox was full of solicitation letters. While some reputable organizations solicit once or twice a year, “those not so on the up and up” will reach out every single month and certainly take advantage, explained Huddleston, who serves as director of education and content for Carefull and is the author of “Mom and Dad, We Need to Talk: How to Have Essential Conversations with Your Parents about Their Finances.” She thwarted their efforts by sorting her mom’s mail and intercepting those solicitations before she had a chance to see them.
Immediately after her mother’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis – she lived with it for about 13 years – Huddleston set up online banking to monitor her accounts for suspicious activity. She thought she intervened early, but she was wrong. After her mom passed away, she discovered a pattern of excessive giving and difficulties managing finances two years prior to diagnosis.
It turns out she was not alone in her predicament.
A recent study published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease suggests that a willingness to give away money could be linked to the earliest signs of Alzheimer’s disease. The findings could also explain why some older adults might be more susceptible than others to scam, fraud or financial exploitation.
Even though the study’s authors say more research needs to be done on the subject, it’s important to watch for signs an older adult is having trouble handling money – an early sign of Alzheimer’s that may reveal itself in a pattern of missed credit card payments – and put controls in place before it becomes a problem. One of the controls Huddleston recommends is account monitoring by Carefull.
“It looks for common money mistakes that older adults make, such as missed and late payments, duplicate payments, changes in spending, gift card purchases, recurring contributions … and sends alerts when something unusual happens,” she said.
In her mom’s case, she was receiving collection notices for medical bills she could afford to pay.
Prevention starts with education
Caregivers should start by explaining the characteristics of common scams to older adults and put safeguards in place.
“Phone calls are still the key way that scammers reach older adults,” Huddleston said, noting if a senior is feeling isolated, they will accept any offer to have a conversation.
“Frequently check in with your parents. If you’re keeping the lines of communication open with them, the greater chance they will reach out to you if they feel like something is wrong. If you’re not checking in and they get those calls and feel alone, they will stay on the phone [with a scammer] and not tell you, ‘I went to Target and spent $300 on gift cards for someone who said I had to pay back taxes in gift cards.’”
She recommends some helpful tips for caregivers:
Hang up a list of scammer red flags by the phone:
- No government agency, including the IRS, is going to call and request personal information or say you owe money. They communicate by mail.
- Don’t wire money or purchase gift cards for any caller.
Put protocols in place
- Tell your parents to let every call go to voicemail, listen to it later, and then decide whether or not to return it. If they’re uncertain of what to do, tell them to call you for advice.
- Set up a ringtone on their phone that identifies you. If they don’t hear it and see your name appear, tell them not to pick up.
- Watch for changes in spending. For example, if they always picked up the tab at restaurants and now struggle to get by, it could be a sign they have been exploited and given away their savings.
- Agree on a budget for giving.
- List the organizations they want to support and hang it up by the phone.
- Write the amount donated and the date next to the organization’s name as a reminder they already gave.
Beware of romance scammers
“If they’re talking about a new love interest, ask how they met,” Huddleston advised. “If they say online, it’s likely a romance scammer. Investigate further and ask, ‘Where do they live?’ If they say, ‘He’s an American doctor living overseas and asking for help paying his way back to the U.S.,’ it’s a common scam.”
If they don’t believe you, she said, show them the newspaper articles and FBI videos available to prove it.
Technology is another mode for scammers
“Political campaigns are the worst,” Huddleston warned. “You make a payment online and don’t realize there’s a box that’s been checked that says, ‘I agree to make a monthly contribution’ and it automatically charges your credit card or withdraws from your debit card.”
Tell your parents not to make donations to political campaigns online. Also warn them:
- Don’t click on any links in emails, even if it appears to come from your bank. Call the bank directly and ask if they’re trying to reach you.
- Don’t click on links in text messages. AT&T, for example, is not going to send you a thank-you gift for paying your bill.
If the situation is getting really bad, Huddleston recommends swapping out debit and credit cards for prepaid cards to limit their spending and set up other bills on autopay.
“They can only give away a certain amount or only go to Target and buy so much in gift cards before the prepaid card will run out of money,” she said. “If they have dementia, they don’t need to know you’re limiting their spending. Just hand them a prepaid card and say, “Here’s a better card for you to use.”