5 Ways to Stop Senior Citizen Scams
Today is World Elder Abuse Awareness Day, launched 13 years ago by the International Network for the Prevention of Elder Abuse and the United Nations. It’s purpose: to remind the world of the need to protect every senior citizen from physical, emotional, financial, and even sexual abuse.
According to the National Council on Aging, 1 in 10 Americans age 60 and older experiences some form of abuse over the course of a year—as many as 5 million seniors annually. Nearly half of all adults with dementia have experienced abuse or neglect, the agency reports.
Financial Abuse Is Most Common
Financial elder abuse, in which a senior citizen is coerced, bullied, or tricked into relinquishing hard-earned assets, is the most common form of elder abuse and the fastest growing. Yet by one estimate only 1 in 44 victims reports the crime.
Most of the abuse is committed by family members or people the senior knows. Scams by strangers, though less common, often happen more quickly and can result in bigger financial losses.
A conservative estimate of annual losses is $3 billion, according to a study published in 2011 by the MetLife Mature Market Institute. In a 2015 study, the financial services company TrueLink put the figure at $36.5 billion. AARP reports that the average loss by a victim of financial exploitation is $120,000.
Some Progress Made
Action in recent years by legislators, law enforcement, regulators, not-for-profits, and the private sector is beginning to make a dent.
For instance, an increasing number of financial institutions are training tellers to take note when an elderly customer appears stressed, or begins making large withdrawals, which could indicate the senior is being defrauded.
AARP’s BankSafe initiative, which among other activities trains bank and credit union personnel to spot fraud, was made available to financial institutions nationwide last month.
“Many institutions have joined the fight, but more must be done to protect the hard-earned life savings of older adults,” says Jilenne Gunther, senior strategic policy advisor at AARP’s Public Policy Institute.
In the House of Representatives, The Stop Senior Scams Act, H.R. 2610, has bipartisan support. The bill would bring together experts to collect and develop educational materials for online and walk-in retailers, financial institutions, and wire transfer companies to use in preventing the type of scams that occur when fraudsters ask seniors to send payments through gift cards, by wire transfer, or by credit card.
“Often the only ones in a position to see what is happening in time to help stop a scam are the ones who are part of the payment process—the banks, gift card sellers, and others,” says George Slover, senior policy counsel for Consumer Reports, which is supporting the bill. “This is to make sure that those people are educated on the role they can play and what to look out for.”
How to Protect Seniors
But there’s still a long way to go in stopping fraud against senior citizens, and individuals are still the first line of defense. Here are five ways consumers can help ensure the safety of the elderly:
- Regularly call or visit. Be suspicious if a senior citizen has a new “best friend,” becomes socially isolated, never seems to be available or able to come to the phone, or is hesitant to have contact with others unless a caregiver is present. This could indicate that someone has undue influence on the senior’s behavior and decision-making.
- Block solicitations. Opt out of commercial mail solicitations. You can arrange for a ban of five years at a time with the Direct Marketing Association’s mail preference service. To eliminate unsolicited offers for credit, go to optoutprescreen.com. Read our advice on eliminating robocalls, including using your phone service’s anti-robocall service, using a third-party call-blocking service or device, or using a call-screening tool. (The Federal Communications Commission just ruled that phone carriers can provide robocall-blocking protection by default, not through a consumer opt-in.)
- Provide respite for a caregiver. Caregivers who are stressed financially and emotionally can sometimes steal the assets of those they are supposed to be caring for. Monitor the caregiver and ensure that person gets enough rest.
- Set up safeguards at the bank. If you’re concerned about your relative’s financial decision-making, set up a small account at a local bank for her. That account could, for instance, include a debit card and checking with a spending limit of, say, $300. That way, any other finances can be saved in a separate, more secure account.
- Arrange for limited account oversight. Ask financial institutions to send statements and alerts to a trusted person who has no direct access to the senior’s accounts, so that person can check for fraud. Another option is to try EverSafe, a web-based service that consolidates all of a senior’s accounts and checks daily for suspicious activity. We found that one of its services, called EverSafe Essentials, generally worked as promised. It costs $7.49 per month for one person, following a 30-day free trial.