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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.

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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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Darelyn Casebier
Darelyn Casebier
1 day ago

It seems a lot of readers are a bit ruffled up by some of the comments on this post. I think the bottom line is that we all need to look out for our friends and loved ones…of any age…to keep each other safe from those who would do us harm.

SanLouisKid
SanLouisKid
1 day ago

My in-laws fell victim to the grandchild scam. The scammers called, my father in-law answered, the scammer said, “Grandpa?” and off they went. My in-laws wired $2,000 to Canada. In the scheme of things it wasn’t a mortal financial blow (thank goodness), but they were embarrassed for falling for it. We’ve reinforced not to answer the phone if an unknown call-id shows up and I occasionally send articles on scammers to them (just to reinforce the thought process). Now all I have to do is make sure I don’t fall for one myself. // Later in life when I would go to visit my father he would ask me, “Am I still fairly sharp?” He knew he was declining and just wanted my perspective. I was always intrigued that he was that self-aware.

Last edited 1 day ago by SanLouisKid
Chazooo
Chazooo
1 day ago

Seniors are indeed vulnerable, especially senior women, or why else would my wife receive at least half a dozen pieces of mail daily begging for support/money for anything you can think of. And then all the scam calls and texts every day. Most of the mail is made up of legal charitable or political requests for help, but it is obvious what is the target market. These were infrequent during our working years. The calls are another story, so we do not answer if we don’t recognize the number – if it is important, then they should leave a message, yes? Mostly there is no message, so the call was more than likely a scam or a hustle, “cash now for your house” type a thing. Also my wife is over 80 and I am under 80, so maybe that age is the target more than gender – guess I will find out shortly.

Olin
Olin
3 days ago

I know someone in their 20’s who is mentally challenged and works as a grocery store bagger. He was approached by someone who convinced him to go to the ATM machine within the store and take out cash and then buy gift cards and give them to the crook. The second time this happened, an employee took notice and reported it. The victim did get some of the money back.

Nate Allen
Nate Allen
3 days ago

Thank you for the nice article and the nice reminder to look out for our parents and other family members and friends who might fall for such a ruse.

To those bringing up ageism: from my reading of the article, that did not seem to be the intent at all. Looking out for those that we love to make sure they are not victims of something horrible is not my definition of ageism.

mytimetotravel
mytimetotravel
3 days ago
Reply to  Nate Allen

Lumping all seniors together is ageism, but it was one comment that really got to me: “Seniors and advance Internet technology don’t mix; they all end up losing money because of scammers from Bangalore or Bucharest.” You seriously don’t think that’s ageist? Try substituting a race or a sex for “senior”.

Nate Allen
Nate Allen
2 days ago
Reply to  mytimetotravel

I was only defending the article above. I would never seek to defend comments on any article on the internet.

mytimetotravel
mytimetotravel
3 days ago

Sorry, but as a senior (mid 70s), I find this article (and some of the comments) thoroughly ageist. There are gullible people in every age group, and savvy tech-aware people older than I am. Given I spent my working life as a networking techie, I am probably more alert to scams – phone, internet, SMS etc. – than you are. Sure, at some point I may suffer cognitive decline, but I expect the people around me to tell me if that starts happening.

neyugn
neyugn
3 days ago

Your article only mentioned about phone scam. What about email phishing ? Smishing (SMS phishing) ? Seniors and advance Internet technology don’t mix; they all end up losing money because of scammers from Bangalore or Bucharest.

Last edited 3 days ago by neyugn
Carol Buck
Carol Buck
3 days ago

The scam involving telling someone that their grandchild needs money after being arrested in a foreign country happened to my mother when she was in her 80’s. Luckily, she called me to ask if it were true. This was a wake up call for me as prior to this my mother would have never believed this and would have know immediately it was a scam. After this while she continued to oversee her investments, she agreed to a system where she kept only few months worth of needed funds in her bank account. In order to transfer more money into the fund she would call her investment advisor to request and the advisor would then have to call me to confirm funds could be transferred. The system worked very well. She was able to maintain a sense of financial independence for many years while I was able to insure that the bulk of her funds were safe from financial predators.

OldITGuy
OldITGuy
3 days ago

A very good article and a useful reminder. One point I’d add is that it’s useful to have a running conversation with family members (including but not limited to seniors) on this topic. If not reminded occasionally, it’s easy to forget the danger. Paradoxically, my wife’s mother gets these calls/emails/texts frequently enough that it’s a regular conversation about the latest contact. This frequent reminder is actually helpful in reminding her to keep up her guard. I’m certain her phone number and email address are now probably listed on senior lists available on the dark web and I’ve suggested she needs to change them but she’s reluctant to do so. But we’ve turned it into an entertaining dinner conversation we regularly update regarding the latest scams we’ve personally seen.

R Quinn
R Quinn
3 days ago

Jim, I know what you say is accurate and a genuine danger, and I’m not relating the following to you.

But “seniors” are not a homogeneous group. Reaching a certain age doesn’t mean one switches to a gullible old fool.

I be one of those things known as a “senior” and the way the term is too often used is quite offensive.

When I receive or make a customer service call and they learn my age very often the tone of the conversation changes. Sometimes it’s like they are talking with a child.

Sure there are older folk who can be talked into anything, I bet their younger self were one of those who were talked into a mortgage they couldn’t afford because the lender said they could or a student the victim of a predatory lender – whatever that means.

parkslope
parkslope
3 days ago
Reply to  R Quinn

The fact that our group is not homogeneous makes it especially important that our younger family members are aware that aging frequently includes subtle changes in the ability to make appropriate financial decisions. I also strongly disagree with your assumption that only those who were gullible when young are susceptible to being taken advantage of when they are old. In fact, those of us who have a long track record of being able to recognize fraudulent sales pitches may be especially vulnerable by virtue of being more likely to dismiss (consciously or unconsciously) age-related decrements in our decision-making abilities.

Jiab Wasserman
Jiab Wasserman
3 days ago
Reply to  R Quinn

Dick,
 
My father was
a victim of multiple scams by his employees and my brother. Contrary to your
assumption about these senior victims, my father’s younger self was never
talked into anything that he could not afford. He was a medical doctor and
frugal all his life. He was very intelligent, progressive, and always generous
– often too generous. His cognitive ability declined so much that he lost
his ability to detect frauds.
 
There is a study that financial literacy decline with age but confidence in decision-making abilities does not. Increasing confidence and reduced abilities can explain poor financial choices by older people.
 
I think just like our physical capacity, our mental capacity will decline. Maybe that won’t happen to you but I know one day, I won’t be able to think as sharp and could be a victim. While I hope it won’t happen to me, I am prepared to protect myself and have listed my sons on my investment accounts to be notified if there are any suspicious activities on my accounts.

Jim Wasserman
Jim Wasserman
3 days ago
Reply to  R Quinn

I appreciate the feedback, Dick. Of course not every group is blanket ignorant and gullible, whether “seniors,” “boomers,” “millennials.” etc. Each group has savvy and vulnerable people. That said, the big picture statistics indicate that people over 60 (and I am in that group) have seen a tremendous upsurge in being taken advantage of, especially from internet scams. See a report on official FBI warning here

There are many possible reasons, whether because they are less “native” to the internet, a higher percentage incidence in cognitive decline than younger age groups, or that more within that group turn over financial matters to others to manage. None of these justify disrespect to you or other members of this or any group.

I think it is good to warn everyone to be wary of scams, but the numbers indicate that this demographic is particularly getting taken, regardless of individual member’s acumen, and so extra heed should be taken.

Paula Karabelias
Paula Karabelias
2 days ago
Reply to  Jim Wasserman

My uncle , who was a nationally known finance executive , is in mid 90’s now , still physically and mentally fit, yet in his late 80’s he once fell for a grandparent scam after the scammers convinced him that the caller was his grandson. My uncle went down to his local bank and was withdrawing several thousands of dollars in cash when his daughter ( the mother of the “jailed” grandson) coincidentally happened to call him . My cousin was able to stop him and went to the bank abd told them that they need to be alert to seniors withdrawing large sums of cash. My uncle had been a customer for years, was well known to them, and making large cash withdrawals was not something he had done before.

HumbleGardener
HumbleGardener
3 days ago
Reply to  Jim Wasserman

I think you and Dick are both right. Some of us just don’t start out with the same intelligence or capacity of discernment as others. The problem often comes when a once mentally sharp person has a cognitive decline that isn’t recognized by the person, or by the family until an incident occurs that demands recognition.

AmeliaRose
AmeliaRose
3 days ago
Reply to  R Quinn

I agree 100%. There are gullible people of every age.

HumbleGardener
HumbleGardener
3 days ago

A few years ago, my elderly mother called to tell me that her computer was frozen on a screen that displayed a telephone number to call for help. My older brother had the same problem. Turns out he had taught her to click “unsubscribe “ on spam emails. Thankfully, she called me instead and then the local computer tech that she knows, who straightened things out. I had regularly counseled her about phone scams, but was caught by surprise on that one.

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