Editorial Policy

6 ways to protect the elderly from money scams

Eva Norlyk Smith Ph.D.

September 29, 2014

QDear Eva,

My grandmom keeps telling smooth-talking salesmen yes, and I don't know what to do! She has had her driveway spray-washed (it didn't need it), she is a “member” of some police association I've never heard of and now, there's some “company” calling her about getting insurance on her appliances, and she's too nice to tell them to go away. So far, nothing terrible has happened, but it's only a matter of time. Any tips on how I can make her get tough on these scams? —Nicole

AHi Nicole,

You're smart to be concerned, because the elderly are a popular target for scammers. Elderly people have the time, they are at home and many are lonely and all too happy to interact with strangers. As a result, seniors lose an estimated $3 billion a year to financial abuse, including scams, according to a MetLife study.Ask Eva

Scammers are particularly skilled at playing on emotional attachments to con older folks into giving out money. One is the so-called grandparent scam, in which a con artist poses as a grandchild in trouble, and asks the grandparent to send money. The Federal Trade Commission says that between January 2012 and May 2014, it received 30,000 complaints about scammers claiming to be loved ones. More than $42 million was taken. The number of people scammed is probably much higher as many never report the fraud.

Other common scams involve fake lottery or sweepstake winnings, where con artists prompt victims to pay an upfront fee to collect. There are also many Medicare scams, in which fraudsters pose as reps from Social Security and Medicare to get access to sensitive data such as Medicare numbers or bank account information.

Many types of fraud fall into a gray area and can be harder to detect. These can involve companies who prey on vulnerable elderly, offering them services they don't really need (as in the case of spray-washing her driveway). If memory loss is involved, some may even bill repeatedly for a service that has already been paid for.

So what can you do to protect your grandmother? It's a delicate matter, because you can't run her life, and you certainly don't want to imply that she is not competent to handle her own affairs. However, if you go about things tactfully, there are several steps you can take.

  1. Talk to her about common scams. Read up on some of the common scams affecting the elderly, and tell her stories about people who got fooled. Talk about how important it is to be careful.
  2. Suggest that she get on the AARP Fraud Alert. If she is on email, you can help her get signed up for the AARP Fraud Alert, so she is kept up to date on the most common scams. Sign up yourself as well, so you're on top of new developments and can talk to her about them. You can also give her the number for the AARP Fraud Fighter Call Center at (800) 646-2283, so she can call for advice if she ever suspects a scam.
  3. Tell her to never send money via wire transfer for any reason. Most scammers rely on wire transfers to get the money, because they can retrieve the money anywhere and, if they use a fake ID when collecting the wire transfer, the money can't be traced. Encourage your grandma to call you right away if someone asks her to send money via wire transfers — even if it's someone she thinks she knows.
  4. Stay in touch. People who are lonely are often more likely to fall victim to scams. The most vulnerable time for a person is in the three-year period after a major stressful life event, such as a change in health or housing, or the loss of a spouse, the AARP reports. Staying close and in touch is also one of the best ways to gain her confidence, so she will reach out when in doubt.
  5. Register her phone with DoNotCall.gov. If she still has a landline, set her up with a cellphone instead to minimize the risk. Getting a cell phone and registering with DoNotCall.gov will cut down on the number of marketing calls she gets. When she does get a call, she can simply say that she is on the Do Not Call Registry, and she should not be contacted in the future. Write her a short script that she can read to callers. Explain to her that if a “marketing company” calls after she has been on the registry for 31 days, chances are they aren't legitimate.
  6. Help her set up online access to her bank account and credit card accounts. You might even set up her bills for automatic payment online. That way you can keep an eye on her finances and follow up on unusual charges.

Overall, gaining her trust is one of the best ways to protect her. That way, she will feel comfortable confiding in you whenever she is in doubt about a past charge or pending bill. That will not only help to protect her against fraud; it may well prove invaluable to her in many other ways.

Got a question for Eva? Send her an email.