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How Family Caregivers Can Protect Loved Ones From Fraud and Scams

Steps to take to keep older adults from being exploited

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Alexandra Iakovleva / Getty Images

A little bell went off in my head as I sat staring at the wire transfer request on my computer screen. I was excited to accept the speaking invitation from what looked like a prestigious group in England. They’d reached out to me and given all the appropriate responses to my questions, and the contact person also checked out online. The last step was for me to wire a reimbursable fee for my visa. Minutes away from providing my bank information, I stopped and made a phone call. Something didn’t feel quite right. 

I think of myself as a savvy person, and yet I was amazed at how swiftly I’d almost been sucked into this online money scam. As schemes become more sophisticated, it’s increasingly difficult for caregivers to be on the lookout for fraud and protect their family and loved ones. This is a greater challenge for caregivers of loved ones with cognitive decline, especially if they don’t live in the same house or town.    

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The pain of romance scams

Some of the hardest and most painful scams for families are the ones involving romance, where people use fake identities to prey on lonely and isolated people. The contact usually begins through social media, with a barrage of flattering and attentive overtures that lead to frequent conversation. A relationship is established, and then at some point the scammer asks for money. There is always an excuse, a reason why the con artists can’t access their own funds, like a problem with a visa or a plane ticket. COVID-19 exacerbated the problem further. Not only were victims isolated by the pandemic, but the person running the scam had a “legitimate” excuse as to why they couldn’t travel to see the victim in person.

“Part of what makes these scams hard for caregivers is that the victims come from a generation typically raised to be private and taught to be kind and polite,” says Amy Nofziger, who is the director of Fraud Victim Support and oversees the AARP Fraud Watch Network’s free helpline, at 877-908-3360. “They feel compelled to answer the doorbell, provide information when an authority figure requests it and feel uncomfortable hanging up on someone.”

Add to that the fact that many victims have recently lost a spouse and now have more time on their hands. Many spouses who’ve devoted the past few years to caring for that loved one see this phase as their last chance for true love and happiness.

A cautionary tale

Bill* lost his father two years ago to cancer; his mother, Alice*, 81, of Kansas, had been her husband’s full-time caregiver. After the funeral, Bill and his wife, Carol*, stayed in Kansas to help Alice get on her feet and organize her financial affairs. As a precaution, Bill added himself as an authorized user to her bank accounts, since the family business was in a trust and producing income.  

Before they returned home to Texas, Bill’s last words to his mother were that living alone, she was a target to potential con artists and had to be extra careful; she laughed it off. To look at Alice, a pillar in her community who works and lives independently, is in good health and is active in her church, it’s hard to believe she could fall victim to an online romance scam. 

Social media as a portal

But only a few months later, the local bank called Bill with the news that his mother had maxed out her home equity loan. When he and his wife asked her what was going on, Alice told them that she was helping someone and they needed to trust her and to let the bank transfer go through.

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“We began to watch money fly out of Alice’s account, and it wasn’t as if she had a lot to give away,” says Carol.

When Bill and Carol dug deeper, they discovered Alice had friended some suspicious characters on social media and one latched on. They found more than 70 gift cards, which the scammer had instructed her to send a picture of on a Google Hangout. Each time there was a different reason why the scammer needed more money: He had been detained by the French authorities; he had a briefcase full of cash but needed airfare to get to it; he was stuck on a boat on the way to see her and on and on. He talked about love; he promised marriage. Every attempt Bill and Carol made to question her and poke holes in the story or stop her was met with resistance and stonewalling.

Bill and Carol began to try to set up whatever protections they could, contacting local law enforcement and removing the trust documents for the business so that Alice couldn’t sell property or take out loans. They sat down to explain the situation to neighbors and friends as well as Realtors and bankers to ensure she didn’t borrow money or take out more loans. They got the FBI involved when they realized they had signatures from the con artists on cashed money orders.

The frequent travel back and forth between Kansas and Texas not only cost Bill and Carol money but took time away from their jobs as they traded off checking in on Alice. The hours spent monitoring her bank records, dealing with law enforcement and trying to stay one step ahead of Alice were exhausting, stressful and diverted them from their own obligations. Without the ability to constantly monitor her mail, phone and social media, they didn’t have total oversight of what was happening. During their visits to check on her, Alice was able to put up a good front and tell them what they wanted to hear until they left. 

“We never would have imagined in a million years that someone as tough and smart as Alice would fall for something like this,” said Carol. “It’s so hard to be the child confronting the parent, because in some ways it made her dig in even deeper.” 

Masters at manipulation

“Scammers have become incredibly sophisticated, including using psychological tactics to isolate people completely and turn them against their family,” says Nofziger. “As a caregiver or child of an elderly parent, it can be especially hard to police incoming scams. ... Adding fraud protection to the already long list of important tasks is difficult, since other things take priority, such as doctors’ appointments, medicine, errands and food preparation.” 

They also know how to create a sense of panic when someone expresses doubt. When the victim voices concerns or asks questions, they will respond with something like “Don’t you want to see me? How could you not believe me?,” putting the victim in a defensive position, explains Nofziger.

Legal rights

Rather than listen to her son and daughter-in-law, Alice doubled down. She continued trying to get money for the scammer, including by selling possessions. She even chose to disown her son rather than believe the truth. Bill and Carol discovered she had turned over more than $80,000 to the scammer and currently believe she is engaged, if not married.

“There’s little we can legally do to stop her,” says Carol. “It’s not against the law to give away money or land. And she is a person with all her faculties, who holds down a job and plays piano at church. Bill lost his father in February 2020, but he feels like he also lost his mom that same year. It’s devastating.”

Carol describes the range of emotions she has felt as a caregiver as going “from anger, devastation and horror to a weird space where you are exhausted by it all and you accept this is what it is. We’ll just keep on trying to protect her from financial ruin. And we will be there to help when she understands what happened,” she adds. 

*Last names have been withheld and first names changed for privacy.

Preventive Tips for Caregivers

While helping a loved one avoid scams as a caregiver is challenging, Nofziger offers a few tips and actions to take to put up some guardrails: 

  • Since the phone is often a gateway to fraud, there are many steps you can take with settings and some basic ground rules to help protect loved ones. Learn more at the AARP Fraud Watch Network Helpline at 877-908-3360.
  • Rather than tell loved ones that they can’t do something, caregivers can get into their mindset by role-playing scenarios with them. Share an article about scams or fraud, and ask your loved one, “What would you do if this happened?” 
  • For family members with smartphones, you can set up contacts with names on them instead of numbers, for example “pharmacy,” “neighbor,” “doctor,” etc. Suggest that they let every unknown number go to voicemail. Most fraudsters don’t leave messages.
  • Call your phone company and ask what services they have for robocalls and unknown numbers. Check out the website to see if your phone service subscribes.
  • Write a refusal script for your loved ones with phrases they can say like “No thanks,” “Don’t call again” or even “I don’t accept offers over the phone” if a stranger is trying to engage them.
  • COVID-19 created an increase in Medicare scams, so alert your loved ones to beware of anyone they don’t know asking for a Medicare or Social Security number.

If someone tells you they have been scammed, always lead with kindness and empathy. Getting mad or defensive usually stops the conversation or makes it worse. One great answer is: “I’m sorry. We will figure this out together.” Just be ready to support your loved ones if/when they realize they were victims of fraud. 

Lee Woodruff is a caregiver, speaker and author. She and her husband, Bob, cofounded the Bob Woodruff Foundation, which assists injured service members and their families. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

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