How to Protect Your Aging Parents Against Scams and Fraud
Scammers love to target older adults. Sure, they’ll go after people of all ages. But con artists often prey on older adults because they assume that seniors are more trusting, are more vulnerable and less likely to report being scammed.
On top of that, scammers see older adults as prime targets because they think they’re sitting on a pile of retirement cash – cash that they hope to steal. According to a report by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, older adults reported $1.7 billion in losses to financial exploitation in 2017 alone, with an average loss among victims of $34,200. And that's only the reported losses — outside researchers estimate that actual annual losses to older adults range from $2.9 billion to $36.6 billion.
Unfortunately, there’s a chance your parents could become a part of those statistics – if they haven’t already. No matter what you do, you can’t protect your parents 100% from becoming victims. However, you can reduce their risk by taking the following steps.
Alert your parents to scam red flags
Scammers are always coming up with new ways to get people to part with their money. Certainly, using resources such as AARP’s Fraud Watch Network can help you and your parents stay on top of the latest ploys. But one of the best defenses against scams is to be aware of their red flags. Tell your parents to be on the lookout for these telltale signs.
- Requests to wire money: A call or email from someone asking you to wire money to claim a prize, make a purchase, or pay a fee for a work opportunity is usually a scam. Also be wary of requests for payments with a prepaid reloadable card.
- Calls from government agencies: Government agencies such as the IRS, Medicare and Social Security Administration will not call or email you. These agencies communicate by mail and will only contact you by phone if you call them first. They never ask for payments to be made by wiring money.
- Unsolicited calls: Warn your parents to be wary of calls from groups they’ve never had contact with that are asking for their personal information. If your parents are worried that it might be a legitimate request for information, they could hang up, look up the number for the office or organization that supposedly was calling and call it directly to see if it was trying to contact them.
- Emergency calls from the grandkids: A call from someone claiming to be a grandchild in desperate need of cash fast could be a scam. Telltale signs include a plea to wire money. Tell your parents to ask the caller questions that only their grandchild could answer, or call their grandchild directly.
- Limited-time offers: Emails, text messages, and phone calls from people offering a chance to get in on a money-making opportunity or investment for a limited time only are scams.
- High-return investments with no risks: A pitch for an investment that offers high returns with no risk is a scam. All investments have some level of risk.
- Free lunches: Offers in the mail to attend free lunch or free dinner investment seminars typically are sales pitches for high-fee, unsuitable or even fraudulent investments. Warn your parents not to go to these events.
[ Keep Reading: Signs Your Parents Are Victims of Scams or Fraud ]
Help your parents avoid spam calls
One of the most common ways scammers reach older adults is through phone calls. You can help reduce their risk of becoming victims or telemarketing scams by using this three-prong approach.
Put your parents on the National Do Not Call Registry
You can opt your parents out of unwanted sales calls by registering their home and mobile numbers on the Federal Trade Commission’s National Do Not Call Registry. This only prevents legitimate telemarketers from calling. However, you can tell your parents that any sales pitch calls they continue to get are likely for bogus products and services.
Block spam calls
Your parents might be able to block anonymous calls to their landline (depending on their service provider) by picking up the phone and dialing *77. To remove the block, dial *87. And their wireless carrier likely offers a call blocking service for free (or a premium version for a fee). There also are mobile apps such as Hiya they can use to protect against spam calls.
Give your parents a refusal script
You might recognize a spam call for what it is the moment you answer the phone and immediately hang up. But don’t count on your parents to use that strategy because they likely will consider it rude not to answer or hang up. So help them come up with a sentence they can use to end a call without appearing impolite. For example, tell them they could say, “I can’t talk now because I’m busy making dinner,” if they get a call that is questionable.
Cut down on the junk mail
Reduce solicitations your parents get by helping them register at DMAchoice.org to opt out of direct mail. It won’t stop the flow of marketing mail – just that from members of the Direct Marketing Association. But you could let your parents know that any solicitations they continue to receive in the mail might be questionable.
The most important thing you can do to protect your parents from any type of scam or fraud is to keep the lines of communications open with them.
If you live close to your parents, it’s a good idea to go through their mail to sort the junk from bills and important letters. Also, talk to your parents about their giving. If they’re sending checks to every organization that asks for money, help them come up with a list of groups they feel most passionate about supporting and a budget for their giving. Encourage them to stick to their budget and only give to groups on their list.
Help parents monitor their financial accounts
Your parents might become victims of fraud and not even know it. That’s why it’s important to help them monitor their financial accounts for signs of fraud.
For starters, help them set up online access – with strong passwords – for all of their financial accounts if they haven’t already. If they think this is risky, tell them it will be easier to check their accounts regularly online for suspicious activity rather than wait for a monthly account statement to arrive. Also help them set up alerts on their bank and credit card accounts to be notified by email or text message of activity on their accounts. You can also sign up for Carefull to speed up that process and get alerts for all of their accounts in one place. These alerts will help your parents identify fraudulent use of their debit and credit cards immediately if they see that there are transactions that they haven’t made.
Also make sure your parents create a my Social Security account at SSA.gov to keep tabs on their benefits. This will prevent thieves from setting up my Social Security accounts in their names and changing bank routing numbers for deposits.
Finally, help your parents check their credit reports to see if there are any accounts they don’t recognize, which could be a sign that their identities were stolen to open lines of credit. They can get a free copy of their credit report once a year from AnnualCreditReport.com.
If they find suspicious accounts, they will need to contact the fraud departments at the three credit bureaus – Experian, Equifax and Trans Union. Numbers for the credit bureaus should be listed on their credit reports.
[ Read: What You Need to Know About Being a Financial Caregiver ]
Warn your parents about investment fraud
Unfortunately, there are plenty of so-called professionals who might offer to help your parents invest or manage their retirement accounts but will end up exploiting them. You can help your parents check the background of financial professionals with the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority’s BrokerCheck. Tell them to ask financial professionals questions such as what licenses they hold, whether any disciplinary actions have been taken against them, how they get paid and whether they can provide references. If the professionals can’t provide clear answers, that should raise a red flag.
Your parents also should be wary of investments that are touted as having guaranteed high returns with no risk, that the professional can’t clearly explain or that don’t have documentation that can be reviewed for more information. The Securities and Exchange Commission provides detailed information about investments that are marketed to seniors and how to avoid fraud at Investor.gov.
Warn parents about exploitation by family members
Unfortunately, those who try to scam your parents might not be strangers – they might be family, friends or caregivers. That’s why it’s important to warn your parents about people who are close to them who might take advantage of their generosity.
One step your parents can take to protect themselves is to name a power of attorney. That person (or people) will have the legal right to make financial decisions and transactions for your parents if they aren’t able to themselves. It’s important that they have a power of attorney document drafted while they are mentally competent so it will be valid and so they can choose someone they trust. If they don’t name a power of attorney, they might be pressured later in life when they no longer are as mentally competent to name someone who isn’t trustworthy and who wants to take advantage of them.
The most important thing you can do to protect your parents from any type of scam or fraud is to keep the lines of communications open with them. Keep them updated whenever you hear about new scams. And don’t belittle them if you see them acting in a way that puts them at risk. Instead, offer them support and make them feel comfortable coming to you for help.
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