Family matters | Fraud alert: Youre the sweepstakes grand-prize winner!

I was visiting my 84-year-old mother on a recent afternoon. During that time, she received at least five calls from telemarketers. Mom is so trusting and nice to everyone and her memory is starting to go. I’m afraid that she is an easy target and that someone might take advantage of her. How can I make sure she stays safe? — C.B., Walnut Creek

Unfortunately, you’ve actually got good reason to worry about your mother’s vulnerability. These days, anyone can be subject to scams and con games, but the scammers especially prey on older individuals, counting on the fact that they may be isolated, lonely, confused, or desperate for attention and cash. According to the National Council on Aging, (NCOA) more than 28 percent of the approximately 1.5 million fraud complaints filed in 2014 were from consumers age 60 and over. And it’s estimated that law enforcement authorities only learn about one in every 25 cases.

Theft and scams by strangers are the most rapidly increasing forms of financial exploitation of older adults. The NCOA calls these scams “the crime of the 21st century.” The problem is pervasive. Among the top 10 scams compiled by NCOA are Medicare insurance fraud, counterfeit prescription drugs, funeral and cemetery scams, fraudulent anti-aging products, telemarketing, internet scams, investment schemes and reverse mortgage scams.

Scams may not be on your mom’s radar because people of her generation tend to expect honesty in the marketplace. Seniors are also less likely to take action when a scam occurs and are less knowledgeable about their consumer rights, according to research conducted by AARP. 

Common scams come in many different forms: on the phone, through the mail, at the door or online. The biggest hook is telling the target that she or he has won a prize. The scammers then convince the “prize-winner” to give them personal information that can be exploited.

Other scams use fear tactics like saying a large bill is due, the senior owes back taxes or will lose her house unless she signs a form.

Personally, my radar always goes up when I am in a client’s home and see piles of junk mail or hear the phone ringing frequently and realize that the callers aren’t friends or family.

There are a few basic steps you can take to help your mom stay free of scams.

First, make sure that she has Caller ID so she will know who is calling when the phone rings. Explain that she shouldn’t answer the phone if it is not a number she recognizes.

Second, register her phone number on the “Do Not Call” list at www.donotcall.gov or by calling (888) 382-1222.

Third, your mom should know not to give out her credit card, banking, Social Security, Medicare numbers or any other personal information over the phone — unless she initiated the call.

If your mom gets a lot of junk mail, register her on the “Do Not Mail” list at www.donotmail.org. It also might be a good idea to have a family member or trusted friend open and monitor her mail. You’ll especially want to make sure that she doesn’t enter sweepstakes, which often require a fee in order to “process” entries. Additionally, some experts suggest that you limit charitable giving to two or three organizations, to avoid getting multiple requests for donations.

You should also have a discussion with your mom about Internet safety. She should never respond to emails — and especially never open attachments — from people she does not know. She should also be aware of the various forms in which email scams arrive — including fake requests for money from friends, emails that are dressed up to look like they are from legitimate companies, etc. Just as on the phone, she should never give out personal information via email.

In addition, your mom shouldn’t open her front door to anyone she doesn’t know. Asking friends, family and colleagues to call her first before visiting will help her know when to expect them. If your mom has a caregiver or care compaion, the person should be trained by you or your mother’s social worker to recognize red flags of scams and report them to you immediately.

You can also work with your mom to simplify and monitor her finances. I recommend that seniors have only one credit card, one debit card, one checking account, and one savings or money market account. It also might be a good idea for you to review her financial statements with her, so you both are aware of the activity and can quickly catch anything unusual.

In addition, to avoid her information getting into the wrong hands, Social Security and Medicare cards should not be kept in her wallet.

If you want to keep informed about the kinds of scams that are happening at present, both the FBI and AARP maintain web pages dedicated to senior fraud watches. 

If your mom or someone you love is the victim of a scam, encourage them to talk about it and reassure them that help is available. Reporting the scam to the police, her bank or credit card company, and Adult Protective Services may help avoid additional targeting. Bank and credit card companies will often provide reimbursement to the victim of a known scam or fraud.

And keep in mind that the more involved your mom is with friends, family and community, the less isolated and vulnerable she will be to the scam artists we know are out there.

Rita Clancy, LCSW, is the director of Adult Services at Jewish Family & Children’s Services of the East Bay. Her columns appear regularly in J’s Seniors supplements. This article was co-written with Jean Tokarek, a certified geriatric care manager at JFCS/East Bay. Have questions about your aging loved one? Email rclancy@jfcs-eastbay.org or call (510) 558-7800, ext. 257.

Rita Clancy
Rita Clancy

Rita Clancy, LCSW, is the director of adult services at Jewish Family & Community Services of the East Bay. Have questions about your aging parents? Email rclancy@jfcs-eastbay.org or call (510) 558-7800, ext. 257.