At least twice a week, I receive a phone call from my mother hysterical about some call she received regarding receiving a free home inspection or a trip she won from a contest she never entered. She is now anxious when she sees an unfamiliar phone number in the caller ID.
My mother’s anxiety is shared by many older adults. There are now so many scams targeted toward older adults. Research has shown that during hard economic times, older adults are most likely to be targeted. Many older adults are inundated with junk mail. John Breyault, director of the National Consumers League’s fraud center warns that once a senior takes the bait for one scam, thieves sell the person’s name, address and telephone number.
In Pemaquid, Maine, Gwendolyn Swank had worked her entire life and by the time she reached her 70s, she had more than $300,000 in assets plus a monthly Social Security check to cover living expenses. Rodney Chapman, a neighbor and close friend, convinced her into buying into an auto repair shop where she would also work as a bookkeeper. Swank had previous experience as a financial bookkeeper. He managed to keep her hostage in her home using her fear of drug dealers. He would make calls to her home impersonating a sheriff or a law enforcement officer working a drug bust. She paid for business expenses without seeing any return on her investment. After six years, all she had left in her account was 37 cents. She is behind on payments to credit card companies for expenses accrued on behalf of Chapman, and owes her landlord and Central Maine Power Co. thousands of dollars. She owes $60,000 in state and federal taxes for money she withdrew from stocks and IRAs and gave to Chapman. Even though the Court awarded her a $1.3 million judgment against Chapman in 2011, it is highly unlikely that she will never recover her losses.
Financial fraud is the fastest growing form of elder abuse. A 2009 study by MetLife’s Mature Market Institute estimates that older adults lose approximately $2.6 billion per year due to financial abuse — fraud, as well as theft by family members and acquaintances. Here is a list of common scams aimed at older adults:
- Telemarketing and mail scams: The U.S. Department of Justice estimates that dishonest telemarketers take in an estimated $40 billion each year, bilking one in six American consumers — and the AARP claims that about 80% of them are 50 or older.
- “Sweetheart” scams: These scams tug at the heartstrings of the older adult, convincing him/her that love and care are their motivations for being included on bank accounts or property deeds.
- Charging outrageous amounts for services/products: Fast-talking scammers first convince the older adult that he/she needs some product or services, then seriously overcharge him/her — often hiding the high cost in extravagant schemes involving interest and installment payments. It is usually a service or product the older adult might find essential to their quality of life, such as hearing aids and safety alert devices.
- Faking an injury: This is targeted at older adults who are homeowners and/or financially secure.
- Unsolicited home repairs: The scammers usually work in teams of two or more, scammers scour neighborhoods with a high concentration of older residents, or even track recent widows and widowers through obituaries and death notices, then appear on their doorsteps claiming to spot something in need of fixing — a hole in the roof or clogged drainpipe, for example. They will demand payment up front, and then often claim that their initial investigation reveals a more serious problem, with a more expensive solution. The work is usually shoddy and the scammers are unlicensed. In many cases, one scammer will distract the older adult while the partner will scan the house and steal money and jewelry.
Older adults can protect themselves by
- throwing junk mail away;
- question the caller, usually this will deter him/her from speaking further;
- when you are on the internet, make sure that you are on a secure site, particularly when making online purchases;
- make sure that you do not select “remember me”or the “keep me signed in” to prevent anyone from accessing your online banking or shopping accounts;
- do not give personal information over the phone;
- contact the Better Business Bureau if you have questions about a potential contractor;
- visit the Federal Trade Commission at http://www.ftc.gov, the National Consumer League at http://www.nclnet.org and AARP at http://www.aarp.org for the latest financial scams and reports.
I encourage everyone to report your suspicions of any type of elder abuse to the local authorities. Please feel free to leave your comments and questions.