How to Protect Older Family Members From Fraud

Common financial scams that target older adults, and ways to avoid them

Quick summary

When it comes to scoping potential victims, experts say con artists tend to look for individuals who are home during the day to answer fraudulent telemarketing calls, retired people who are hoping for one more shot to increase their nest egg, and those who will be too proud to admit they were "had" and report that they were victimized to the authorities.

Sound like anyone you know?

Older adults are widely acknowledged to be frequent targets of financial scammers. According to a recent survey by the Better Business Bureau, nearly 30 percent of all fraud victims are over the age of 65. Don't feel paranoid if you're worried that your parents or other family members may fall victim to fraud -- you're just being prudent.

Fortunately, there are a number of steps you can take to reduce the chances your family will be victims. Here are some of the most prevalent frauds and ways to help protect the people you care about.

Telemarketing fraud

Telemarketing fraud is probably the most common scam of all. Shady marketers may call the older adults in your family to hawk investment schemes, vacation clubs, or sweepstakes plans, and then pressure them to sign up immediately because the offer is only good for a limited time. Often these marketers will demand some kind of up-front investment or fee to participate, which is always a red flag that the caller is not on the up-and-up.

You can warn your older family members to not give out any personal information or credit card numbers, or otherwise buy anything from anyone over the phone. Some older people have a harder time hanging up on obnoxious salespeople because they don't want to be rude. If this is the case with your loved ones, get them a phone equipped with Caller ID so that they simply don't have to pick up unless they recognize the number of the caller. Also, make sure their phone number is registered with the national Do Not Call registry , which will significantly cut down -- if not eliminate altogether -- the number of telemarketers calling their home.

Internet fraud

Whether it's a phishing scam -- e-mails designed to trick people into revealing personal information, including passwords to banking sites -- or the well-worn Nigerian banking frauds, the Internet is rife with scam artists looking for potential victims.

To protect your family members online, make sure they know not to give out personal information to strangers, download e-mail attachments from people they don't know, or click on links from unsolicited e-mail offers. Check to ensure that their antivirus software is installed and up to date, which will help protect them from inadvertently downloading malicious programs designed to collect personal information from their computers. And set their spam filters and Internet browser security settings to the highest levels possible.

Identity theft

Identity theft is th e fastest growing crime in the U.S., according to the Federal Trade Commission, so it's a good idea to be wary about thieves stealing your loved ones' personal information, such as their Social Security number or their bank or credit card account numbers and passwords. With this information, identity thieves can open new accounts, rack up charges on credit cards, empty bank accounts, and generally wreak havoc on their bank balances and credit ratings.

One way to prevent identity theft is to sign up your parents or other family members for credit monitoring services such as Experian and Identity Guard, which will alert you or them to any suspicious activity in their credit file, including applications for new credit or even suspiciously large spending on any existing accounts (most major credit card companies offer similar plans). These services can catch identity thieves before they do much or any damage.

Fraudulent Investment Schemes and Seminars

Another scam to look out for involves calls and mailers for so-c alled "free" investment seminars, where your family members will likely be strong-armed into signing up for some type of investment scheme, regardless of whether it actually makes sense for their personal situation. These seminars -- usually lunches and dinners at local hotels -- promise advice about retirement investing, estate planning, or some type of dubious investment, and they may require a hefty up-front fee to attend.

If your loved ones work with a financial planner, ask their advisor to explain to them that these seminars are usually a gigantic waste of time and money. Make sure they know not to invest their money in anything without getting independent third-party advice.

Many people are taken in by investment schemes brought to them by friends and neighbors who claim to have already hit it big. That's why it's important to pay attention when your loved ones mention new friends who know a lot about money or are great investors. Remind them not to make any investments or estate planning changes without running the numbers by their trusted financial advisors.

Stay on top of things

Perhaps the most important way to ward off con artists is to simply remain involved in your family members' day-to-day lives. If you live nearby, stop by their house often to check in. Take a glance at their mail to see if they're receiving more than their share of sweepstakes offers, travel and vacation club invitations, and investment solicitations. Check their caller ID logs to find out if they're being inundated with telemarketing calls.

If there's an increase in these types of junk mail, e-mail spam, and phone offers, it may mean they've already fallen for some type of scheme and have been added to a marketer's database of potential victims.

Also, if they have any household help, like home health aides, make sure you meet them and are occasionally at the house when they're working. Because they often have access to sensitive personal data, household workers are occasionally the culprits when older adults are the victims of fraud. When hiring any employees who will have access to personal information, be sure to run a credit check or go through an agency that will run a more thorough background check.

What to do if you think your loved ones have been targeted

If you're suspicious of a charity or company hounding someone in your family, check with the Better Business Bureau to see if they have a record of complaints. Likewise, check with your state Attorney General to see if there are any criminal actions or complaints against the firm your loved ones are considering doing business with. The best place to report investment fraud is through the Securities and Exchange Commission .