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Bad Guy on Line One

Jim Wasserman

GOOD PARENTS WARN their children about predators who look to take advantage of them. By the same token, good adults should warn and safeguard their elderly parents, as well as the other seniors they care for.

We all use our electronics for accessing information. We sometimes forget the information highway is two-way, and nefarious people use those lines of communication to get to the vulnerable. And it isn’t just about hacking online accounts. Often, elder abuse starts with a simple phone call.

A recent scam illustrates the danger. Seniors received calls informing them that a beloved grandchild was in jail and needed bail money quickly. Told there was no time for formal niceties, the victims were talked into gathering cash that a courier would then pick up.

This sounds suspicious to the removed observer, but it’s a common scam preying on seniors’ devotion to family. Whole networks are organized around this scam. A similar scam in Quebec, which recently resulted in four arrests, netted some $700,000.

It’s not new. Ten years ago, my mother received a call from a scratchy, soft voice that said, “Hey grandma, it’s your favorite grandson.” My mother, coincidentally having a running joke with a grandchild about this, replied, “Michael?”

“Yeah,” said the soft voice, who then went on to explain he had taken a quick trip to Mexico with friends, was being mistakenly held in jail, and needed cash to get out. Plausible, given our home location in Texas and Michael’s nature. Fortunately, my mother had been with Michael the day before and knew something was amiss with the call.

These phone scams vary in form, but all have the same purpose. Many offer computer tech support at a discount price. Some say the elderly person is due cash back or a full refund. The callers then try to get credit card information from the senior, opening the money tap for the scammers.

It’s a shame we live in a society that not only undervalues seniors, but also has so many people willing to abuse them financially. Unfortunately, as we age, our brain is less capable of detecting possible fraud. Reports of financial crimes against seniors are on the rise.

Here are four preventative steps you can take to protect elderly friends and family members:

  • Have a conversation with seniors, stressing that they should never give out personal financial information over the phone, especially credit card or bank information. If the caller is insistent, the senior should ask for a callback number and then inform a trusted family member or financial advisor. Legitimate places don’t mind waiting a day.
  • Keep the senior informed about his or her finances. Younger family members often don’t want to trouble seniors with details, but remember that it’s the seniors’ money and they’re entitled to know. An elderly woman told me her niece, who manages the woman’s money, is saying the senior needs to move to a smaller studio apartment but gives no details. The elderly woman told me she’s okay doing so if she needs to cut expenses, but she wants more information.
  • Speaking of relatives, nearly half of elder financial abuse is committed by someone the older adult knows and trusts, like a relative or caregiver. It’s good to have multiple family members overseeing a senior’s money, so the savings don’t turn into a tempting illicit resource for a single person who isn’t accountable to others.
  • There are resources that monitor and respond to elder financial abuse. The Department of Justice maintains the National Elder Fraud Hotline (833-FRAUD-11 or 833-372-8311), managed by the Office for Victims of Crime. Staffed by experienced professionals, it provides personalized support to callers by assessing the needs of the victim and identifying relevant next steps. The department also offers information through its Elder Justice Initiative.

Most of all, maintain an open and nonjudgmental relationship with the senior. Many seniors feel ignored or talked down to. They don’t tell others about scams for fear they’ll suffer embarrassment or be scolded for being foolish.

Jim Wasserman is a former business litigation attorney who taught economics and humanities for 20 years. He’s the author of a three-book series on how to teach elementary, middle and high school students about behavioral economics and media literacy. He’s also authored several educational children’s books. Jim lives in Texas with his wife and fellow HumbleDollar contributor, Jiab. They have a book that examines the impact of social media influencers on youth consumerism and identity development coming out in 2023. Check out Jim’s earlier articles.

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