How to Protect Yourself (or Your Parents) from Scams Targeting Seniors

In our previous article, we met Evelyn, who told us the story of how a local crook took advantage of her husband’s diminished mental capacity and scammed him out of $400K over a few short months.

We also explored the dramatic recent increase in elderly fraud victims, why it’s such an alarming problem, and the massive impact it’s having on our economy.

Then, we concluded by outlining the financial and emotional factors that make seniors ideal targets, as well as which scams senior citizens are most likely to encounter. If you haven’t already, be sure to give it a quick read.

Now we’ll provide some actionable tips that you and your family can immediately put to use to avoid becoming a victim of common scams that target seniors.

When It Comes to Preventing Senior Scams, the Burden’s on You

One big takeaway from Evelyn’s story is that despite all the stress she experienced and money she spent on legal fees—even after being interviewed by the FBI—she basically walked away empty handed.

Luckily, she still had enough money remaining to live on, but there are countless tales of seniors who ended up homeless after falling for one of these scams.

The harsh reality is that senior fraud is becoming increasingly common because there isn’t enough law enforcement to go around.

Like an Old West town overrun by hundreds of train robbers, with only a single sheriff and a deputy to provide some semblance of order, it’s an uphill battle—to say the least.

To put the problem in perspective, Vance Callender, an Immigration and Customs Enforcement operations chief who specialized in fake lottery scams, was quoted in a 2013 Wall Street Journal as saying, “We collected 36,000 victims” in six months in 2009, “and we can’t open 36,000 investigations”! 

What does this mean for you? Unless you’re scammed out of millions (or even hundreds of millions) of dollars, or unless it’s an ultra-high profile case, you might not expect much more from the authorities than telling your story to a couple officials and never hearing from them again.

Clearly, that’s not acceptable. What can you possibly do, though? 

Instead of fighting back after the fact, in this article, we’re going to talk about how you can prevent scams from occurring in the first place.

As FBI Supervisory Special Agent David Nanz also stated in this same WSJ article, “It’s up to seniors and their families to prevent falling victim.” That’s exactly what we’ll help you learn how to do here.

Before we get there, let’s address the root cause of most common senior scams.

Emotions: A Key That Unlocks the Door to All Financial Scams

Dr. Stacey Wood is a professor of psychology at Scripps College, where she’s worked as a clinician with elderly scam victims for nearly a decade in an effort to help make them less vulnerable.

During this time, Dr. Wood’s research has revealed that a lack of numeracy—general discomfort with numbers, specifically related to finances—tends to be high among senior scam victims.

Criminals often understand this and use it to their advantage when crafting their ruses.

However, a lack of numeracy might not always be a factor. As a case in point, Dr. Wood is also a member of a scam-related task force in Los Angeles County, where she’s especially interested in mass marketing fraud.

To help provide some insight into why people fall for easily identifiable schemes, she created a laboratory model of a common sweepstakes scam and found that by 1) using a well known name like Target or Walmart, and 2) creating a sense of urgency (e.g. only 30 days left!), about 40% of participants said they would call the follow-up number to claim their ‘prize’.

In this study, however, Dr. Wood found that “there were really no variables like numeracy and social relationships.”

So, what was the unifying factor?

When it comes down to it, regardless of how it’s presented, Dr. Wood mirrors something we wrote about previously: the point of any good scam is to place victims into an “impulsive, emotional state” in order to “increase the likelihood they’ll buy.”

Bottom line: While there are countless approaches, all common senior scams (and scams in general) are intended to put you in a wholly emotional state where you’re not thinking clearly.

Tips on How to Protect Yourself or Your Parents from Scams Targeting Seniors

Based on years of experience and research, along with insight from experts, here are our top 5 tips for preventing yourself from becoming a senior scam victim.

1. Understand That You’re a Scammer’s Target

According to Dr. Wood:

“I feel like consumers should know they are going to be targeted. They should have a more proactive stance. If you’re really paying attention, you’re getting targeted at least once a week: spam emails, phishing, telemarketing calls. It really is ubiquitous. Just assume you are being targeted.”

In a nutshell, don’t act like it’s not happening to you. If you have a pulse, then scammers are actively trying to hook you—and if you’re senior, you’re probably being targeted even more.

Denying this fact could prevent you from seeking out the resources you need to educate and safeguard yourself.

2. Understand You’re Dealing with Professional Scam Artists

In most instances, senior scams are presented as low-risk propositions (e.g. “Just give us 10 seconds and we can let you know if you’ve been selected as a winner!”).

However, Dr. Wood states that consumers—especially seniors, who might be cognitively impaired to some extent—often overestimate their ability to resist these professional con artists.

“[Seniors often] think that if they call the number, they can get them off the phone because the risk is really low. The person on the other end of the line could be very skilled at putting you on the hook,” she says.

Professor Weisman mirrored this sentiment in our last article when telling us that seniors “can never be sure who is really on the other end of the line.”

In short, as the old adage goes, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Even if you’re unsure, why tempt fate?

» For Further Reading: How to Identify & Avoid Phone Scams

3. Control Your Emotions

As we detailed above, when you’re presented with some kind of “unbelievable” offer, whether it’s over the phone, through the mail, or via email, a crook is going to immediately target your emotions.

They want to get you on the hook as quickly as possible because every second that passes decreases the odds of getting their hands on your money.

Why? Because once you begin thinking logically, instead of emotionally, they know their ruse will quickly fall apart. To help you accomplish this, all you need to do is follow two simple steps:

  • Realize That This Isn’t Urgent. If this offer is as great as they say it is, it will be just as viable in a few days as it is right now. Don’t fall for hard selling tactics that force you to make an immediate decision. Looking at the situation from this perspective, it should be easy to walk away if you think it’s necessary.

  • Reach Out & Do Your Research. Once you’ve separated yourself from the pitch, the next step is to investigate their claims. Scams generally aren’t built around facts, so you’ll find that they quickly fall apart when exposed to the light of day. The internet can often make this research quick and easy, as can consumer advocacy websites like HighYa.

4. Make It Difficult for Scammers to Contact You

In other words, there are several steps you can take to minimize your chances of being contacted by a scammer in the first place.

  1. Getting a cell phone instead of a landline (most cold calling crooks perpetrate their fraud through landlines).

  2. Signing up for the Do Not Call list. While this won’t necessarily prevent scammers from calling your cell phone (after all, they’re not exactly known for following the law), it can help you avoid certain common financial scams. 

  3. More and more scammers are using the internet to perpetrate scams since they understand seniors often aren’t digitally literate. To help prevent this, it’s essential to learn good online habits, such as never opening emails from unknown senders (or downloading any attachments they contain), never entering your financial information on a non-secure website, and always surfing the web behind a firewall using up-to-date security software

  4. According to the National Council on Aging, if you are contacted by a potential scammer, a solid rule of thumb is to never hand over your credit card or banking information, social security number, or Medicare details to an unknown person, unless you initiated the call.

Here’s the stark reality, though: At some point, a senior’s family might need to intervene, especially if their diminished cognitive abilities prevent them from practicing basic preventative measures.

If you have a loved one in this situation, how do you breach the subject and cross into a potential minefield?

5. Be Prepared for Tough Conversations 

One of the primary things Evelyn learned during her ordeal is that, at some point, it may be necessary to take away a senior’s access to finances in order to prevent fraud. In some cases, such as those involving dementia, even the ability to live on their own might be in jeopardy. 

Obviously, this is a massive topic worthy of its own article. To briefly help us understand how families can breach this subject though, we spoke with Jennifer FitzPatrick, author of Cruising Through Caregiving: Reducing The Stress of Caring For Your Loved One. If a senior isn’t experiencing dementia but is having problems handling finances (remember the numeracy factor we talked about previously), here’s what she recommends:

  • Expect resistance. Except in the rarest of instances, this won’t be a welcome conversation for anyone involved. 

  • Exercise patience. Ultimately, it’s the senior’s decision whether or not to include other family members in their finances, and where they’d like to live. As such, it might take some time for them to warm up to these new ideas.

  • You might be taken for granted. If you’re closest to the senior (emotionally or geographically) and regularly help them, your assistance might be taken for granted and your opinion on the matter might count less than others. While this reality might sting a bit, enlisting the help of these other family members might go a long way toward addressing the concerns at hand.

  • Give concrete examples. Probably the first question your family member will ask is, why? Answer with specific examples: “Cite the past three times Mom forgot to pay a bill (and be specific). Remind Dad that he called you five times over the past month because he fell, felt sick or needed you to bring him dinner because he didn't feel up to cooking.”

  • Pull back your support. Here’s how Jennifer describes it: “If you are trying to encourage your parent to change her living situation, consider the ways you are propping her up. Often the older parent believes everything is just fine—she is totally able to live independently—but it's only because you are cleaning her house, taking her to the doctor and helping her shower. Sometimes you need to pull back your support so your parent understands how reliant she is on you.”

Bottom Line

According to a 2016 survey conducted by the Investor Protection Trust, here are some eye-opening numbers: 

  • More than two out of five older Americans exhibit one or more of the warning signs of current financial victimization.
  • 31 percent of older Americans say they are vulnerable in one or more ways to potential financial victimization.
  • Fewer than one in 10 (7 percent) of Americans aged 65 or older say that their healthcare provider has ever “asked you about how you are handling money issues or problems.”

Taken together, millions of seniors are highly susceptible to being scammed, and for the most part, they don’t have the available information to fight back and avoid falling victim.

The good news is that, based on what you’ve learned here today, you can put yourself (or your parents) on the path to avoiding senior scams today, and long into the future.

For Further Reading:

Derek Lakin

With more than a decade of experience as a copywriter, Derek takes a detail-oriented, step-by-step approach to help you shop smarter. Whether it’s nutritional supplements or new scams, he believes an informed consumer is a happy customer.