1 in 5 seniors fall prey to financial scams

February 11, 2018 GMT

Today’s senior citizens were raised to be polite and trustworthy. Many of them have worked most of their lives, have a home that’s paid off and money in their savings accounts. A lot of older people also pride themselves on having excellent credit.

But for all these admirable qualities, senior citizens are also a prime target for exploitation. It’s estimated that one in every five people ages 65 and older have been victims of financial exploitation, according to Richard J. Heitstuman of Montana AAA Legal Services, a nonprofit that aims to serve justice for senior citizens. Con artists have a range of tactics to gain their victims’ trust and persuade seniors to give them money. Common scams include lottery and sweepstakes, home repair and traveling con men, as well as cold calls of all kinds.

“Scammers try to make themselves and their organizations seem legitimate,” Heitstuman said. “They are often well-spoken and sophisticated, and they have background information to support their stories.” Sometimes, these con artists impersonate government agencies, well-known charities or even family members.

Nola Howard, a retired nurse from Whitefish, said she got a call from someone from “Medicare” last month asking her to do a survey. The caller also requested her Social Security number.

Because of her background in health-care, Howard said she knew Medicare wouldn’t operate this way.

Government agencies, such as Medicare and the IRS, don’t need your personal information - they already have it, Montana AAA Legal Services reports. Howard reported that the people who called were friendly and nice. They were also persistent.

“I’m very concerned they are going to be targeting our senior citizens,” Howard said.

Every year, senior citizens lose about 36 billion dollars to financial exploitation.

“Exploitation by strangers is prevalent and they are really good at what they do,” said Chris Bishop, an Adult Protection Specialist in Kalispell. The Adult Protection Service investigates cases of abuse, neglect or exploitation of seniors. Last year, the local agency, which covers Flathead, Lincoln and Sanders County, received 429 reports of possible abuse or exploitation. Of these reports, 277 involved senior citizens and 152 involved adults with some level of disability. Adult Protective Services investigated these reports and found 62 substantiated cases.

A smooth-talking stranger who exploits seniors is only one aspect of the problem, Bishop told the Inter Lake.

An estimated 90 percent of senior exploitation and abuse cases involve family members or trusted others, such as a friend or caregiver. “Often family members who serve as caregivers can become overwhelmed. It might not be a willful or intentional neglect,” Bishop said. “Most family members think with their heart, ‘I’ll take care of mom when she gets old.’ Which is all well and good,” Bishop said. “But realistically it is a 24/7 job. You have to ask yourself, are you capable of cleaning up if mom has an accident multiple times per day?” Other family, friends or caretakers intentionally take advantage of the elderly. They might have a substance abuse problem and steal medication or money from an elder to feed their addiction, Bishop said. Others might take advantage of an elderly person purely for their own financial gain. They might try to isolate a senior citizen to make them more vulnerable or dependent on the abuser, or threaten them to get what they want, Bishop said.

To complicate matters, elder abuse is vastly under-reported.

“No one wants to admit their family is taking money from them. It’s tough,” Bishop said. Seniors citizens who fall prey to scams by strangers often hesitate to report the crime. A lot of times, they are ashamed and don’t want to admit they have been scammed.

“They might be concerned if they report, people will think they are losing their faculties,” Bishop said. “Just like no one wants to give up driving, they also don’t want to give up managing their own finances.” Seniors with memory loss are often victimized because they can be convinced they’ve given money or ordered a service in the past. Friendly or lonely seniors may fall victim because they don’t hang up on callers or shut the door on salespeople, senior advocate Heitstuman said. Seniors with a high level of education can also become targets because they are more confident making financial decisions without the advice of others

Though it’s very difficult to get money back after a scam, there are ways senior citizens can protect themselves from being scammed in the first place. Never give out personal information online, Heitstuman said, and watch out for “high-profit, no-risk” offers. “Scammers play on emotion, so use logic,” he said. If it seems to good to be true, it probably is. Advocates also tell senior citizens to be skeptical of cold calls, unsolicited letters and emails. Don’t make hasty decisions. Ask questions and get a second opinion.

Senior protection agencies recommend checking out the Better Business Bureau to confirm the legitimacy of a company. Never provide money to gain a prize, and invest carefully, they said.

“Don’t go at it alone, If you’re unsure of a financial institution’s legitimacy, ask for help,” Heitstuman said. Senior citizens, and those helping seniors with their finances, should track expenses and hang on to receipts. Bishop said Adult Protective Services looks at bank records and any out-of-the-ordinary financial activity when they investigate fraud cases involving seniors.

Senior legal advocate Heitstuman said senior citizens hold 75 percent of the wealth in the country, and senior financial exploitation has an impact on the entire population.

If you are concerned about the well-being of an older relative, the best way to make sure they aren’t being taken advantage of is to be involved in their lives, said Heitstuman. “Most exploitation occurs because nobody else knows about it,” he said. “Give your parents or grandparents a call or visit them and ask what is going on in their lives,” he said.

If someone suspects a senior citizen is being abused, neglected or exploited they can call Adult Protective Services at 1-800-277-9300. Montana AAA Legal Services can also help with questions about senior financial exploitation at 406-204-3400.

Reporter Breeana Laughlin can be reached at 758-4441 or blaughlin@dailyinterlake.com.