As Elder Law attorneys, we are very aware that our senior population is vulnerable to be taken in by a variety of scams. Con artists target seniors because they often live alone and are generally trusting, particularly when someone appears to be offering to help them. We regularly warn our clients and readers about common scams as they arise, but we were recently reminded of how important it is to teach our elderly loved ones how to protect themselves.
Helping an Elderly Veteran Who Had Given Out Personal Information
One day in July, Lisa Shoalmire was contacted by a 77-year-old widower—we’ll call him Henry to protect his privacy—who realized he had been scammed by a caller. The caller said that Henry’s personal information had been compromised, and to fix it, he needed Henry’s birthdate and the last four digits of his Social Security number. Worried that his bank accounts would be accessed, Henry gave the caller the information but realized as soon as he hung up that it had been a scam. Lisa tells the story about how she helped Henry in a July 20th post on our Facebook page. Henry was not a client, nor did his situation require an attorney, but Lisa was happy to help. Unfortunately, these incidents are all too common, and we urge family members to look out for their elderly loved ones!
Scams Get More Sophisticated Every Year
If you live close to your elderly family member and visit them frequently, there are several steps you can take to make sure they are as safe as possible from common scams. The most important thing to do is to talk to them regularly about the kinds of tricks scam artists will use so that alarm bells go off when it happens to them. According to the Texas Attorney General’s Office, these are some of the most common ways scammers target seniors:
- Phone calls. Thieves who target seniors know that telephone calls are the best way to get to them. They are skilled at sounding sympathetic and offering conversation to lonely home-bound seniors. Once they have them on the phone, they can often talk them into—or out of, as the case may be—almost anything. Phone scams range from what happened to Henry to appeals for financial help, promises of larger prizes in exchange for cash upfront, and sales pitches for products that don’t exist. Helping an elderly loved one get on “Do Not Call” lists and using caller ID can protect them from these kinds of scams.
- Going through garbage. Our elderly family members are less likely to have switched to electronic billing and bank statements than we are, so they could be tossing out just the kind of information identity thieves want with their garbage and recycling each week. Helping your loved one convert to electronic statements or buying them a paper shredder and insisting they use it will protect them from this common form of theft.
- Special offers and prizes. Nothing is as appealing to a thrifty bargain-hunter as a something-for-nothing deal. Emails or phone calls promising a one-time offer or grand prize in exchange for personal information, a small fee, or access to accounts are always scams. Companies making legitimate offers do not make unsolicited contact with consumers. Make sure your loved one understands this and never provides personal information or payment in response to an offer or promise of reward.
- Threats. Even more effective than the promise of reward is the threat of something bad happening. Scam artists will stop at nothing to frighten your loved one into agreeing to wire money, give bank account information, or reveal your Social Security number. Being threatened in this way can be very traumatic for anyone, especially an older person who lives alone.
- Spam and online ads. Your loved one doesn’t have to be contacted directly to become the victim of a scam. Spam emails and false advertising on various websites can suck anyone into turning over personal information or sending money for a product that doesn’t exist.
The bottom line is that everyone—but seniors in particular—needs to be very cautious about who they give information and send money to. Teaching your loved ones about these kinds of potential scams is important to keep them—and their money—safe.
Dangers of Identity Theft for Seniors
The idea of identity theft might be difficult for an older person to understand. Identity theft is not about someone pretending to be you in person. Instead, it’s about using your good credit rating, assets, and eligibility for benefits to open lines of credit and get government checks. In the digital age, it’s all too easy for someone to use even basic personal information to open accounts, file tax returns, get credit cards, and collect government benefits in someone else’s name. As the thief gets richer, your credit rating tanks, and you are responsible for paying it all back. That is why it’s so important to stop it before it happens. Make sure your loved one knows that they should not:
- Give out personal information over the phone
- Throw documents containing personal information away
- Open spam emails
- Click on ads on websites and social media platforms
Most importantly, make sure your loved one knows they can come to you for help if they have done one of these things and that you will not be angry or criticize them. Just like Henry came to Lisa for help, your family members need to know that you will help them and not make them feel worse about the mistake they made.