The FBI, AARP and many senior-focused healthcare organizations have warned that seniors and people suffering from dementia are prime scam targets. Scam artists look for people who may feel isolated and crave interaction. Elderly victims are often polite and trusting of strangers. Dementia impacts the cognitive abilities necessary to discern a stranger’s true motivations, making one vulnerable to being manipulated. A 2009 study by MetLife’s Mature Market Institute estimated that seniors lose approximately $2.6 billion every year due to financial abuse and scams.
When someone responds to unsolicited junk mail or calls, they may find themselves on a “sucker list,” which means they have been identified as “receptive.” Other times, people get added to a list because their prescription drug plan company or another business has sold their contact information. Once on a list, scammers may relentlessly pursue you with junk mail and calls. Here are a few common scams:
• Fake sweepstakes or winning a prize. You are usually asked to send money to cover processing fees and the taxes on your winnings or prize, but you will not get anything in return. A well-known sweepstakes scam is the Jamaican Lottery Scam. These are often not individuals doing the scamming, but in many cases are large international crime rings.
• Unsolicited home maintenance people or fake utilities representatives (sometimes offering free energy audits or indicating they need to shut off a utility) showing up at your door or calling. These people may suggest work you don’t need, overcharge, do shoddy or no work, or may enter the home (sometimes in pairs) and burglarize you. Do not answer the door if it isn’t someone you’ve arranged to come to your home. If they identify as a utility representative, call the utility company to verify them.
• Door to door sales people may show up selling magazines or other items at outrageous prices or have you sign a contract that turns out to include recurring/monthly subscription fees and more.
• Credit card and bank fraud alerts: Telephone solicitors may try to get confidential info from you using scary stories like telling you that your credit card was flagged as being fraudulently used, or that your computer has been flagged as sending out malicious virus attacks. They will express urgency and push to get some action – either private information (to supposedly verify something) or may try and get you to go to a website that can launch virus software that can capture passwords on your computer. Hang up and look up the agency they claim to be representing (for example, your bank) and call them directly at the number you have on file.
• Medicare and Medical Equipment scams are those where a company calls you and indicates that you can get a “deal” on medical equipment (electric wheelchair, discounted prescriptions), typically by bilking Medicare through fraud. Another scam is telling you that you need a replacement card and asking you to verify your Medicare ID#.
Tips to prevent scammers at home
• Don’t open your door to sales people or strangers; put a “no soliciting” sign out front.
• Use a telephone answering machine to screen calls; don’t respond to strangers’ messages; if a females is living alone, have a male record the greeting.
• Never give our your social security number of Medicare ID#.
• Donate to charities you are familiar with through their official websites, not through the phone/mail.
• Do not place outgoing mail in your mailbox; thieves can steal it.
• Register all phone numbers on the “Do Not Call” registry (www.donotcall.gov).
Tips to prevent scammers online
• Don’t buy from unfamiliar online companies; shop securely (ensure URL begins with “https”)
• Don’t respond to emails from even trusted businesses requiring personal info –even if the email looks official, like from your bank or credit card company. Scammers will fake an email (or maybe even a whole website) to appear as if they are your bank, typically trying to get account information or passwords. Call the bank using your phone number on file, or type in the exact email URL address that you have on file for your bank, and use the “contact” form to ask for follow-up.
• Have virus protection software installed on your computer. Do not respond to junk emails. Note that a common scam is for an email to be sent indicating a grandchild or distant relative needs money!
If your loved one has already shown some inability to use good judgment relating to phone calls, mail and solicitors:
• Ensure that you have a Power of Attorney in order to monitor/manage their finances.
• Hire a professional money manager (insured, bonded, willing to include family members).
• Take their checkbook, ATM card and credit cards away (hide paperwork showing account numbers); sit with them to help them pay their own bills if that provides some autonomy.
• Provide an allowance. Many people like to have some money in their pocket for autonomy.
• Use online banking to monitor activity; set-up bank account alerts relating to withdrawals.
• Consider talking with your loved one’s local banking manager, alerting them to your loved one’s disease.
• Set-up a post office box for mail delivery so that you can filter out junk mail.
• Remove house phone; get a cell-phone and forward all calls to voice-mail (which you monitor).
• Consider freezing your loved one’s credit with the three major credit agencies 1-877-322-8228.
• Remove your loved one’s name from credit bureau’s mailing list 1-888-567-8688.
• If already a victim, contact your county’s Adult Protective Services agency for help.
Finally, as difficult as it is to imagine, an outside caregiver can be a thief of your loved one’s possessions, money or identity. Ensure you use a reputable agency to find a caregiver (and check references), monitor your loved one’s finances and banking activity and remain hands-on with their care. Don’t leave temptations visible, such as large amounts of cash, jewelry and financial documentation; create an inventory of valuables in the home. Keep aware, but recognize that in the later stages of the disease your loved one may make accusations about theft that are not true. If long-distance, have a local relative or friend drop in unannounced to check on things and to help keep your loved one safe.