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3 Ways to Help a Loved One Affected by a Scam

Ease their burden by offering compassion and assisting with financial and emotional recovery


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Chris Gash

Christine Coady’s mother-in-law was terrified when she got the call that her grandson had been in a car crash that injured an undercover police officer. She quickly mailed envelopes filled with cash and sent more money via wire transfers for what she was told was bail, hospital bills, even a wheelchair ramp for the cop’s house. Sadly, it was a scam that ended up costing her $90,000.

She’d been told to keep quiet, but her family realized something was wrong when she kept texting her grandson to ask if he was OK. “Her biggest regret is believing that need for secrecy,” says Coady, 62, who volunteers with the AARP Fraud Watch Network. “I’ve learned that many victims carry shame and embarrassment on their own, not telling anybody.”

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Supporting an aging loved one during or ­after a scam can break through their isolation, bolster their mental health, protect their assets and perhaps even lower their risk for future fraud, says Marti DeLiema, a University of Minnesota-Twin Cities gerontologist who studies financial scams and older adults. Too often, relatives blame the person who experienced the scam, try to take over or withdraw in frustration, she says.

“The emotional impact of fraud is significant, especially when somebody has lost a lot,” says Kathy Stokes, director of fraud prevention programs with AARP. “When the family is supportive, it makes a fundamental difference.”

Fraud experts say these strategies can help you support a victimized loved one:

1. Skip the blame and shame

One in three Americans think scam victims are largely responsible for their fate, according to AARP survey data. Victim blaming could make your parent clam up instead of telling you their story and letting you help. 

Best strategy: “Think about it not as something Mom and Dad did wrong, but about their intent,” Stokes says. “They were trying to help out a relative (grandparent scam) or accumulate money they could pass on as generational wealth (lottery scam).”

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2. Listen with compassion

In a 2017 study from the Stanford Center on Longevity, older people felt embarrassed, angry, violated, confused and even suicidal about falling victim to scams. 

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Best strategy: Don’t begin the conversation on the offensive with “Come on. This is obviously a scam. What are you doing?” suggests Kim Casci-Palangio, director of a peer support program for romance scam survivors with the Cybercrime Support Network. “Gain trust and learn more by asking open-ended questions and listening,” she says.

Understand their fears about opening up. Just 52 percent of older scam victims told family or friends about the fraud, according to DeLiema’s study. Embarrassment is one reason; older women and men may worry they’ll lose their financial independence and the freedom to use their phone, email and social media if well-meaning adult children take over. 

Best strategy: Bolster financial protections and privacy settings together. Discuss setting up new phone numbers, email addresses or tighter social media privacy settings. Ask about adding yourself or another close relative as the “trusted contact person” on their investment and bank accounts, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau recommends. Upgrade your own protections and talk about what you discover, Casci-Palangio suggests. “I guarantee that by assisting their loved one, they’ll uncover safety measures that they didn’t know about or hadn’t implemented yet themselves.”

3. Help out with scam reporting — and explain why it matters

Fifteen percent or less of scam victims reported the crime to their bank, credit card company, law enforcement or a consumer protection agency, DeLiema’s research found. “In general, victims feel better when they’ve made a report,” Casci-Palangio says. “But there are all kinds of barriers, including shame, not knowing where to report or going to local law enforcement and hearing there’s not much they can do.” 

Better strategy: Offer to help with reporting to financial institutions, police, consumer protection groups and government agencies. Be honest about the outcome, Casci-Palangio says. Victims may not recover their financial losses, but their information could help uncover a fraud trend in time to warn others.​​Have questions related to scams? Call the AARP Fraud Watch Network helpline toll-free at 877-908-3360. For the latest fraud news and advice, go to aarp.org/fraudwatchnetwork.

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