The professional crooks are at it again. The U.S. Attorney’s office recently charged six defendants with yet another telemarketing fraud scheme targeting the elderly. The allegations are that the con artists sought out and preyed upon the elderly through their lottery scam. We see these reports often in the news, to the point that they seem very repetitive. The characters and the amount of money stolen from elders changes but the methods are the same over and over. They caught the scammers this time and charged them with theft of a total of $400,000 from various victims. That’s the least of it. Other scams bring in millions from their vulnerable victims.
Why do elders fall for these things? Why don’t they get that the “Nigerian prince” or the “Jamaican Lottery” are clearly bogus and not to be trusted?
There are various reasons why our elders are such easy prey for these thieves. One root cause is isolation and loneliness, a fact of life for many seniors who are not closely monitored by loved ones. A pleasant, slick professional calls on the phone in a friendly and engaging manner and traps the vulnerable elder with kind words, attention and a feeling of connection. The thieves are trained and smart. They smell the kill. They know exactly what to say to get the elder to trust them.
Another very important factor is diminished cognition in the elder. The crooks know that if they have a thousand names purchased from magazine subscribers, U.S. lottery or contest entrants and they know the ages of those on the list, that their chances of finding victims are excellent. Among the elderly on the lists, some of them will be just impaired enough that they can’t see a scam coming. It’s inevitable. Aging can be accompanied by cognitive impairment. At least a third of those aged 85 and above have dementia in some form. Scammers simply buy the lists and start calling. And there are no restrictions against selling the names and personal information such as ages, phone numbers, addresses, etc.to the highest bidder. If you had the name and age of every person who subscribed to The Reader’s Digest, for example, it would be fertile ground for any scammer. Research into the impairments of Alzheimer’s Disease, for example, tells us that financial judgment may be the first to erode, and it is not obvious at the beginning, though the impairment is significant.
Another reason why seniors fall for these ripoff schemes is that they feel financially insecure. Many have lived through the Great Depression. It left an indelible mark on their thinking, that it all could be lost and that what they have might not be enough tomorrow. Whether it is true or not, it motivates people to succumb to temptation that they can get a great deal of easy money. Perhaps a bit of greed is a factor too. Even those who are relatively well off can fall prey to the scammers because of any one of these causes or any combination of them. Intelligence, education, and even training in the field of finance are no protection when impaired judgment and emotions are in play. Professional criminals can make a victim out of anyone who is vulnerable for any reason.
Can we do anything about the problem?
I think we can.
One of the very best ways to keep them safe is to persuade your aging loved ones that you want to help protect them and that you can do so by monitoring their financial activity online. If they don’t bank online, it doesn’t preclude you, the adult child from opening an online record of their account with their permission and checking on what goes out of the account. If you see a wire transfer to an unknown entity, it’s a red flag and time to act immediately to stop fraud that may be going on. Obviously, you need their ok to do this. Some parents won’t allow it.
My mother in law, Alice is still quite sharp at age 91. Someone tried the lottery winner scam with her too. She called the number on the fake letter from the “Lottery Authority” and asked how she would know if they were legitimate. The accented voice on the other end of the call said “well if you think this is fake, you can hang up.” So she did. End of scam. But most of our aging parents are not so smart and not so discriminating. They trust too much.
Even though Alice is very with it, she did allow my husband, Mikol, to monitor her accounts online. He checks everything once a month and calls her if he has the slightest doubt about any transaction. He also gets copies of her financial records and has already thwarted an unsuitable investment by an unscrupulous financial advisor. The advisor got fired and then had to pay the money back.
However we do it, we need to check in on our aging loved ones a lot to stop the professional thieves. I encourage you to have a conversation about lotteries, contests and phone calls asking for personal information with your aging parents. We, their adult children may be their only line of defense.
Until next time,