When my Midwestern grandparents were still in their home, we had a series of home health workers assisting them. Most were dedicated, warm and caring professionals but one woman's criminal activity while managing their home became the final blow to their independence. TVs, VCRs, and other valuables were being walked out of the house by her relatives in full view of the alert neighbors. When we had to call the police to get her and her family of crooks out of the house, we knew we'd allowed my beloved grandparents to live on their own for too long.
It's hard to help your family's senior citizens when they live far away. And with modern technology and creative criminals, it's not even necessary for the bad guys to actually be in their home to steal and cause harm. Many of the common email phishing attacks, where the message appears to be an urgent call for account attention from your bank or the IRS, are well known to the experienced Internet user. But to our grandparents or parents who may be less active users of email, each of these messages causes a bit of alarm. An analysis Symantec did a year ago of phishing attacks from financial institutions found that many of the spam targetted banks in regions with high numbers of retirees (such as Florida.) The cybercriminals are targetting those who are most likely to fall for the scam.
Other worries include telephone scams. A current one has callers pretending to be a grandchild in dire need of emergency cash. They call the grandparent, spin a credible story and get the senior to wire cash before they can make a call to confirm the story. Or people call up, pretending to represent real vendors and services, make arrangements to install carpeting, clean the home, paint or reroof. They get the credit card information right over the phone with no weapon other than a good story and a smooth style.
And we've long had to worry about the mortgage and finance scams. Often someone comes to the senior citizen's home, compliments them on the decor and is just as friendly as can be. They mention that the senior citizen can refinance their home or sign up for a reverse mortgage and receive cash payments while continuing to enjoy life in the home. While there are many legitimate opportunities to engage in these programs, the bad guys get the senior to sign papers they haven't read, or pressure them to make an immediate decision. These scams appeal to the senior citizen's desire to remain independent and often, the victims fail to inform their children or carers that they've signed over their rights to a "broker" or agent.
Even when the senior citizen realizes they have a crook working in their home (cash, heirlooms, electronics have gone missing or are "out being repaired") they are too embarassed to report it. Or they are fearful they will be physically harmed if they report the problem. Or they don't know who to contact. It can get so overwhelming.
If you have a senior citizen in your life that you are worried about, it can be hard to find out if something is going on. When my father-in-law was still alive, he realized it would be helpful if his son had power of attorney. He enabled my husband to be very involved in making sure bills were paid and overseeing any hired caregivers brought into the home. We were so grateful he had the wisdom to recognize that while he was fully capable to manage his affairs at that moment, he might not always be so steady. Of course, he also had the trust that we would respect his wishes in his financial matters.
Talk to your parents or grandparents about these scams today. If you live nearby, arrange that you can review their mail and look for unusual bills or statements. Ask them to put you as a contact for their bank and credit card accounts so if fraud is detected you can be notified. Talk to your loved seniors about putting alerts on their credit reports at the three agencies so you and they will be notified if someone tries to commit id theft against them. Show them the consumer fraud articles available at the FTC's website.
As a good friend who is an experienced and trusted financial advisor also cautions, be very wary of those who offer free lunches or come to your club or retirement community to present financial services and programs. "There's no such thing as a free lunch," he reminded me.