Protecting Seniors From Fraud

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Anyone of any age can get scammed, but seniors make the easiest targets. Each year they lose billions of dollars to scam artists, friends, and too often, family members. Knowing the facts and how to react when a fraudster comes calling can reduce the likelihood of being victimized.

Here's a scenario that's becoming all too common: You worked hard during your career to save for retirement. Now you're ready to enjoy traveling, volunteering, and time with the grandkids. Then you respond to a seemingly legitimate email or phone call and you’re out $30,000 (the average loss according to a recent Metlife study). You've been scammed!

While it may be nice to think there's a special place in Hell for these folks, karmic retribution won't get your money back. Your best option is to never give it to the scammer in the first place.

Why Target Seniors?

When asked why he robbed banks, the infamous Willie Sutton allegedly said, "because that's where the money is." Scam artists also follow the easy money. They target the elderly and the vulnerable - seniors who have built up sizable nest eggs over the course of their lives and who may suffer from cognitive deterioration or social isolation. In addition, today's older generation is generally more trusting than others.

How Big a Problem Is It?

Vast and expensive, but actual numbers are hard to obtain!  Consumer Reports in 2015 reported that just elder financial abuse, i.e. the illegal or improper use of an older adult's funds/assets, costs families between $3 billion and $36 billion every year. The true cost probably lies somewhere in-between. Unfortunately, it's on the rise.

As mentioned above, exact data is difficult to obtain because elder financial abuse often is not reported. According to Consumer Reports, estimates for reported financial abuse range from one in every 24 crimes to one in every 44 crimes.

A Scam for Every Vulnerability

Recently the United States Senate Special Committee on Aging released its "Fighting Fraud" book. Warning: It’s a depressing read that can shake your faith in mankind, but it contains valuable information. Here are the book’s Top 10 scams for 2016:

  • IRS impersonation scams
  • Sweepstakes scams
  • Robo calls/unwanted phone calls
  • Computer scams
  • Elder financial abuse
  • Grandparent scams
  • Romance scams/confidence fraud
  • Government grant scams
  • Counterfeit check scams
  • Identity theft

Some scams seem too silly to fool anyone. I mean, how many Nigerian princes have sent you e-mails over the years? But those scams are still out there, so someone's responding! Others are more difficult to detect, appearing suspicious only in hindsight.

Unfortunately, the culprits are not always professional thieves and strangers. According to a 2013 Consumer Reports article, ninety percent of abusers are family members or trusted others.

Remember This: The IRS Will Not Call You!

This is the big one! In 2016, IRS impersonation scams were three-and-a-half times more prevalent than the other nine scams combined. In this scam con-artists, claiming to be IRS agents, call you. Sometimes they'll say you are due a refund and then try to trick you into divulging private information. More often they’ll claim you owe taxes and demand immediate payment - often threatening you with arrest.

Important to Know: The IRS will never initiate contact with you via phone call or e-mail. Instead, you will always receive official correspondence through the mail. The IRS will never ask for sensitive personal information such as credit card or bank account information. If you receive a "fishy" call, hang up. If you think the IRS may have a legitimate reason to contact you, still hang up, but then call the IRS for confirmation.

How Can You Protect Your Family?

The best way to protect someone you love is to stay connected. Don't leave elderly parents or relatives alone, isolated and vulnerable to fraud. Educate them about the latest scams. The book, Fighting Fraud, is a good starting point. If it isn't feasible for you to personally be actively involved, assemble a team of trusted advisors, such as a financial advisor, accountant, and lawyer, to watch over your loved one(s). Even if a family member is providing care for your mom or dad, having others involved is a smart move. Many problems occur when one person has unlimited access to seniors without any checks or balances in place.

Summary

Being scammed by fraudsters, friends, or family is a serious, and growing, problem impacting seniors today. Combating it takes constant vigilance, perseverance, and personal involvement. There are no shortcuts. But spending time on prevention is far better than desperately trying to undo the financial and emotional damage resulting from senior fraud.

David Crossman, CFA, is an Investment Manager with Bedel Financial Consulting, Inc., a wealth management firm located in Indianapolis. For more information, visit their website at www.bedelfinancial.com or email David.

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