Although no one is immune to financial scams, older adults tend to be more susceptible. Nearly 30 percent of fraud complaints filed with law enforcement in 2014 were lodged by adults ages 60 and older, according to the Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) Consumer Sentinel Network Data Book. And Americans 65 and older who were targets of fraudsters were 34 percent more likely to have lost money than those in their 40s, according to a report by Applied Research & Consulting LLC.
Unfortunately, these statistics don’t reflect the true scope of the problem. According to the FBI, fraud and financial scams often go unreported by older Americans because they don’t know whom to report them to, are ashamed at having been scammed or don’t even realize they’ve been scammed.
That’s why it’s so important to protect your parents from becoming financial scam victims. Here are five signs you need to watch for.
1. They offer personal information over the phone.
When your parents get phone calls, listen for signs that they’re giving out personal information — such as a credit card or bank account number — or making a pledge to donate money, said Ginny Polio, owner of YES Your Executive Secretary, which provides bookkeeping services and financial management for older adults in Massachusetts.
Polio had a client who gave her bank account number over the phone to a scammer who had promised to provide credit card theft protection for a fee — even though she didn’t have a credit card — and to another thief who offered identity theft protection for $350 a month.
Telemarketing scams are common ploys used to target older adults, according to the National Council on Aging (NCOA). Once seniors give out financial information to one scammer, their names and contact information might be shared with other scammers.
To help your parents avoid these scams, you can register their number on the National Do Not Call Registry website, which will help stop scammers from calling them. Then, Polio said, you can tell your parents to hang up on anyone else who calls who isn’t a friend or family member.
2. They say they’ve won prizes or sweepstakes.
If your parents say they’ve won money or a prize, or you see lots of mailings at their home about sweepstakes, it’s a red flag.
Ask your parents whether they had to pay anything to claim their winnings. Typically, scammers tell victims that they have to make some sort of payment to get their prize. The thieves collect their money but don’t deliver the promised prizes. According to the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, the law enforcement arm of the postal service, 60 percent of people 60 and older are victims of this sort of fraud.
Let your parents know that legitimate sweepstakes can’t require anyone to pay a fee as a condition of playing. You can report scammers and suspicious offers your parents receive in the mail with the Postal Inspection Service’s online complaint form. If they’ve been targeted by scammers, report it to the FTC, their state attorney general and state consumer protection office.
3. They get unnecessary medical tests or have unnecessary medical equipment.
If you notice that your parents are having a lot of medical tests and appointments or have medical equipment in their homes even though they are relatively healthy, it’s worth exploring.
Health care fraud is a big area of financial exploitation, said Ramsey Alwin, NCOA‘s vice president of economic security. Scammers might provide bogus services at makeshift mobile clinics or offer free medical products in exchange for seniors’ Medicare numbers.
Check your parents’ Medicare statements for claims for services they didn’t receive or equipment they didn’t order, and report them to Medicare, Alwin said. You also can report fraud through your state’s Senior Medicare Patrol website.
4. They talk about getting a reverse mortgage.
A reverse mortgage is a legitimate way for older adults to tap into the equity in their homes for spending money. So if your parents express interest in one, it doesn’t mean they’re necessarily being conned. Scammers, however, are taking advantage of the popularity of reverse mortgages to steal the equity from the property of unsuspecting seniors, the FBI reports.
Reverse mortgage scams usually involve the offer of a free home or money to seniors in exchange for the title to their property. To help your parents avoid becoming victims, tell them to toss any unsolicited offers they get in the mail and give them the NCOA’s free guide for homeowners considering a reverse mortgage. If they already are victims, file a complaint with their local FBI office and the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
5. They go to “free meal” financial seminars.
Be especially wary if your parents express interest in or actually attend financial or investing seminars that offer a free lunch. There is no such thing as a free lunch, according to the North American Securities Administrators Association (NASAA).
Scammers advertise seminars for seniors in newspapers and through mailings, offering gourmet meals, expert advice and risk-free investment opportunities with guaranteed returns. The food and tips might be free, but seniors who attend these events often end up paying a big price.
According to the NASAA, the goal of these seminars is to get seniors to open accounts with the sponsoring firm and buy investment products, which are risky or unsuitable for them. And the people selling these products aren’t always licensed to do so. If your parents are the target of one of these scam artists and are being pressured by this sales tactic, report the person to your state securities regulator. If they are a victim of investment fraud, you can initiate a dispute through the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority.
To help lower the risk of your parents becoming fraud victims, Alwin recommends that you talk frankly with your parents about common scam scenarios. Tell them that the sooner they report a scam, the sooner law enforcement can stop the scammer and prevent him from targeting others, she said.