How to Protect Older Family Members From Fraud

Common financial scams that target older adults, and ways to avoid them
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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 the 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-called "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.

Stephanie Miles

Stephanie Miles is a former business journalist for the online Wall Street Journal and CNET Networks, who focuses on consumer issues including finance and personal technology as well as consumer marketing and advertising. See full bio

6 months, said...

HELP!!!! I need to know what to do should I report it or I don't know but my grandpa has Alzheimer's my grandma pass away in may and since everything when downhill with my aunt and my cousins started to take things down of my grandpas house pictures my grandmas things away and theyb toke his bank cards paper work of his house and all this stuff now my aunt want to fire the lady taking care of him what can i do to help my grandpa she is killing my grandpa??

over 2 years, said...

In my case, it's my brother who is the scam artist trying to take control over our elderly father's money. Right now, I am his first power of attorney and am joint on his checking account in case anything would happen. My dad asked for my help when my mother got very ill and ended up in a nursing home until she passed away. My brother was very upset that I am in control because he knows he can't get past me to steal his money. He is very unscrupulous and shady and has done a lot of things illegally. My brother continues to prey upon my dad. the attorney knows this about my brother. I just hope my dad doesn't do something crazy, and let my brother talk him into something because he will lose what little he has left. it's really sickening when a family member is only interested in what they can get and will cheat their own parents. Even on my mother's deathbed he was trying to get my dad to do things. I hope my brother gets caught with the other things he's doing now. He should be in jail.

over 3 years, said...

Very Good! I am a senior myself and I know people that have been scammed. This info needs to get out to all seniors!!

over 3 years, said...

You forgot one. Relatives. I prosecuted many cases where the children of an elderly person, under the guise of protecting them, pilfered their savigns and other property. If an adult child is going to look out for the elder parent, make sure there is more than one person doing the looking.

over 3 years, said...

Family members stealing from the elderly is another problem. We have a niece who has stolen nearly $75,000 in fraudulent and manipulated purchases over the past three years. Power of Attorney for a trusted relative is very important as older folks lose their ability to manage their money and comprehend their financial situation. Had my wife had these powers three years ago her mother would not be at the point of being nearly penniless.

over 3 years, said...

I'm getting tired of you treating older people like idiots I am financially secure and mentally alert do not need a keeper. I live in my own home and am 76. My kids live in another state. I do not need a care giver at least not yet. The only trouble I have is getting lonesome .

over 4 years, said...

My 91 year old mother has been the victim of several fraud scams which we just recently discovered. To our dismay, she has sent thousands to a "Publishers Clearing House" scam to "Verify" eligibility for her "prize" as well as a "Social Security Protection" insurance scam. She does not have this kind of money, she lives on her social security only. Someone called her and set up a Bank of America credit card for "overdraft protection" then proceeded to auto pay their bills from her checking account accruing a balance of about $8,000. on that credit card. She has been a customer of BofA for over 70 years and they never questioned any of this. We have taken steps to prevent her further victimization but really need help with how to bring those people to justice.

over 5 years, said...

Identity theft is becoming a real issue in our digital world. Did you know that 2.5 million people are convicted of this fraud in the US every year? Even worse is the rise in identity theft of the deceased. With the growth in our online identities, and especially how funeral homes now publish online memorials and obituaries, the recently deceased are more vulnerable than ever to identity theft. You should take the appropriate steps to ensure you protect your loved one from having their identity stolen upon their death. Read more about how to protect the deceased from identity theft on US Funerals.

almost 6 years, said...

in shorth, mine bank stealing, mony of me, or take mony, with out mine permision, out of mine pension they just take it ,and have no one to help me ,or to exsplain to me bernardus witjes

almost 6 years, said...

My mother is a wiling participant in mail fraud; she sends money to so many claims she has won money that I am afraid she will lose her apartment I have intervened for the past two years, so I am now the Bad Person who doesn't want her to win money. She is paranoid and will give power of attorney to no one. And she is getting worse! I have filed three reports with the adult protection agency in Las Cruces, NM but they do nothing. My mom's name is Josie McKinley, I am her only child, her daughter. I am at my wit's do I get help?

over 7 years, said...

We recently discovered that my 90 yr. mother of Lewiston, Idaho, loaned over $80,000 to a friend. He had taken her to her bank, Sterling Savings & she closed a money market acct. for over $60,000 & wrote a personal check for $20,000. Both accounts had my name on them & the bank did not alert me. They said since the checks were made out to another financial institution, Potlatch Federal Credit Union in Lewiston, they didn't feel it was anything to be concerned about. The money was deposited into an account in the friend's name & by the time we discovered the withdrawals, the money was gone. We contacted the friend & he said they had signed a promisary note, though at first, Mom could not recall signing anything. We met with him & he showed us the note & she had signed it. We set up a ammortization schedule & we got copies of their signed note. We can only hope that he continues to pay toward the loan & we don't end up losing Mom's savings. The banks were very helpful in helping me discover where the funds went but still didn't feel that anything had been done incorrectly by them. "It's her money & she can do what she want with it." Also, as a result of her seeing her low balance in her bank statement she felt she could not afford to pay the premium for her long term care insurance & the policy she has been paying on for 25 yrs. has lapsed. Just when she may need it the most. She has always been very independent & not agreeable to let us take over her finances in anyway. Although she did agree to sign a durable power of attorney for me since this fiasco occured, she could still sell the house or her car or whatever without our advise/approval to anyone who made a sweet sounding offer. She tends to live in the fiscal sense of 30 yrs. ago, and if someone were to offer her some cash, I'm afraid she might go for it. How can we prevent this from happening? Any advise?

almost 10 years, said...

Bankers can set up a checking account that is funded by a second checking or savings account, so that the first account has a small amount in it, say a month's expenses. In the event someone tries to withdraw from that first account, they are limited from taking the elder's life savings. It can keep an unscrupulous worker in the elder's home from stealing unlimited funds by check or from having the forgetful elder write unlimited checks to that person. Additionally, setting up internet access to the accounts can allow you to monitor activity and make account transfers from virtually anywhere, thereby helping your family member manage their account.

about 10 years, said...

This article was OK as far as it went, but there is much more to know. I just returned from a week's visit to my father who lives three times zones away. He had gotten scammed by numerous telemarketers and direct mail solicitors and was thousands of dollars in debt. I spent all of last week trying to get this straightened out. Following up on this article, I suggest the following: 1. Make sure your parents have caller ID and rehearse with them ways to answer, or NOT answer, their phone. I got my dad a phone at Radio Shack that has not only visual caller ID, but spoken caller ID. I programmed the phone with all of his friends' numbers. I worked with him to learn to ignore the phone unless he saw and heard that the call was from someone he knew. I also put a yellow sticky note on the phone with a script in case he answers the phone: "Thank you, but I'm not interested. Take me off your mailing list. Good-bye." 2. Get your parents to go to the bank with you, sit down with a banker. Make the accounts Joint Accounts. Sign up for online Alerts that tell you, daily, what the account balance is, what checks have been written, etc. Get the banker to be your advocate, asking your parent how things are going and monitoring when your parent makes a large withdrawal. The banker told me that they cannot legally prohibit withdrawals, but they can ask, "Are you sure you want to make that large a withdrawal?" Give the banker your phone number and encourage them to call you if they are concerned about activity on the account. 3. Set a low limit on checking accounts and credit cards. 4. When fraud occurs, call the Fraud Division of the credit card company and bank. I was able to recover approximately $2,000 in charges because I told them that my dad had signed up for these things that were unknown companies, had never used the services, etc. It is easier to do it through the bank than trying to cancel these services with individual companies, many of which have no listed numbers or websites. 5. Enlist a local, trusted, person to check in with your parent to look at incoming mail. 6. Stay on top of accounts for a month or so to make sure everything has been credited back and that your parent is no longer making unwise choices. I know that this is a life-long "job" for me now, but at least I was able to get a handle on it before it got any worse.

over 10 years, said...

Perhaps it would be wise to have a little list by the phone for your parents to use in case a call like this is received. What's the name of the outfit again? Phone number? Name of supervisor? Or even just advise them to hang right up. If they get continual calls, they can file a complaint.