Scammers tend to prey upon the elderly. And for children of the oldest Americans, protecting Mom and Dad from fraud can be a big challenge.
It's even more difficult if you live in a different area from your parents and are unable to run interference on incoming phone calls, emails and mailed letters from con artists. Giving your parents stern warnings or demanding power of attorney to control their finances may seem like the way to go — but often those tactics come with nasty emotional fallout.
"When protectors take over finances or lecture parents about their mistakes, it plays right into the scammers' hands by threatening the target's independence," says Anthony Pratkanis, a social psychologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and coauthor of Weapons of Fraud with AARP's Douglas Shadel. "For scam victims to admit they were wrong means they're stupid and unable to take care of themselves," Shadel said.
So how can you help without hurting their feelings? Here are four approaches that might work.
1. Don't just tell your parent to hang up or throw out the letter. Have a talk about why. You can't win a contest you didn't enter, Dad. You never have to pay fees to collect lottery winnings, Mom. Government agencies don't make unsolicited phone calls and never ask for personal information — why would they? They've already got it on file.
2. Don't shame or blame. Remind them what they taught you decades ago: Don't trust strangers — especially those seeking personal information and money.
3. Try some reverse psychology. If you become aware that an older parent is playing a sweepstakes or making a "double your money" investment, ask how you can do the same. Psychologists say this tactic sometimes prompts a warning — your parent doesn't want you to lose money, too. That's your cue to ask, "Then why do you do it?" This could start a conversation that helps the parent come to terms with the scam.
4. Turn patsies into protectors. Talk with your victimized parents about how their experience could be important for other people facing the same situation: "The authorities are looking for these guys, so maybe you can help others." This may make them willing to part with the details of what happened.
In the meantime, keep alert for warning signs. If you don't live nearby, ask a trusted neighbor to be your eyes and ears. What kind of mail is coming into the house? Does there seem to be a pattern of scam callers on the phone? These could suggest that your folks are on "sucker lists" for sweepstakes and "investment opportunities." These lists are developed and sold among scammers to identify past victims as candidates for future fraud.
Consider setting up online access to your parents' bank and credit card accounts. This will let you watch over their finances from afar. Look for unusual monthly charges, big and small.
Know the risks. The most common scams against the elderly include phony lottery and sweepstakes seeking upfront fees to enter or collect; government impostors posing as reps from Social Security and Medicare; the grandparents scam, in which a grandchild is supposedly in deep trouble; offers for free or discount medications (including antiaging drugs) or medical equipment; and credit card fraud and investment schemes.
Women are twice as likely as men to fall for elder financial abuse, especially when they're in their 80s and living alone. Either gender with a type A personality — used to making quick decisions — most frequently falls for "Act now!" scams like fake lotteries. With any scam, an especially vulnerable time is the three years after some major stress, such as the loss of a spouse or a change in health or housing.
Other steps to consider
- Unlist your parents' phone number so scammers can't get it. Consider replacing the landline with a cellphone, where scam calls are less frequent.
- Put your parents' addresses on opt-out lists with the Direct Marketing Association. Once done, legitimate vendors won't send junk mail and parents will know that what arrives is likely from scammers. That mail should be reported to the U.S. Postal Inspection Service.
- Check your parents' credit reports at AnnualCreditReport.com, to ensure that fraudulent new accounts haven't been opened in their names.
- If Mom and Dad won't heed your warnings, AARP Foundation volunteers can help. You or they can call the AARP Fraud Watch Network helpline at 1-877-908-3360 toll-free. "We get a lot of calls from children asking that we contact their parents about possible scams, and even more from older adults suspecting that they have been caught in a scam," says AARP Foundation fraud expert Amy Nofziger. "Often older parents don't want to share their victimization with their kids, but it's important to get resources and report it. Our volunteers are trained to help you through it."
Sid Kirchheimer is the author of Scam-Proof Your Life, published by AARP Books/Sterling. He writes about consumer issues for AARP Media.