June 15th was World Elder Abuse Awareness Day (WEAAD). Elder Abuse is most often financial with about 4% of elders falling victim to fraud. It is estimated that over $2.9 billion is lost every year. The typical victim is an 85-year-old female who is deceived, threatened, and emotionally manipulated into giving up $120,000 that they couldn’t afford. Additional losses involve a loss of innocence and generosity as victims withdraw even further from social contacts.
Older clients may be more susceptible to scams when the perpetrators are strangers, given that perpetrators are always on the lookout for people they perceive as vulnerable.
As part of their scam, perpetrators will often provide guidance to their victims on how to talk to their financial advisors when questioned about large withdrawals or wire transfers. Gaining a client’s trust is key to stopping these situations.
Exploring some of the most common types of scams may help make you resilient to their wiles. However, as you explore them, note that scams are always evolving; these are just a few possible examples. It is crucial to listen to your clients and ask questions. If you are concerned that a client is a victim of a scam, you should work with your supervisor to assist the client.
You can also rehearse with a senior being scammed. First, let them know what you are rehearsing and why. Then, ask them personal questions and let them practice saying “No.” You can make this a fun exercise that you do with them when you call. “Hi, this is a prince from Wakanda, and I need to move 24 million dollars out of the country. If you would just let me borrow your bank account for a few days you can have one million dollars. What is your bank account number?” Only after practicing silly examples like that, would I recommend moving on to the grimmer examples of loved ones in trouble. Before each practice, make sure that they know you are just rehearsing.
In addition to not giving out any financial information, my rule of thumb is that I never wire money. Yes, I know it is sometimes supposedly “required” for real estate transactions, and they may say it is required in order to buy a car, but wire transfers are the most dangerous method of transferring money. You can almost always find another option if you push hard enough. Push harder; I do not recommend them.
Here are the most common elder scams, how to prevent them, and what to do if you have been victimized by one of them.
1. Computer Virus Scam
This is a scam hiding in plain sight. A supposedly helpful note displays on your computer screen. It may warn you that your computer is infected. In reality, scammers are trying to infect your computer with a virus which may do additional harm or are trying to sell you software which will supposedly disinfect your computer. Sometimes the very software they are trying to sell you is the virus which will capture additional keystrokes on your computer.
Assuming that they are not coming from your normal protection, messages that your computer is infected are nearly always attempts to gain access to your computer. Allowing access to your computer allows that person to steal funds or other sensitive information in order to steal your identity.
Neither Apple nor Microsoft nor other legitimate businesses will ask you for credit card information over the phone. They don’t solicit business by flashing a message across your screen. They also probably don’t know what the problem is or have a quick fix just waiting to pop up a message and solve your problem. If you are really tempted, don’t download the software or call their number. Look up your own number for Apple or Microsoft and call them directly.
About 40% of all robocalls are just scammers trying to get your information. On average, we each receive about 16 such calls every month.
In fact, it is a general principle that no company that initiates a call to you is up to any good. If you decide you need whatever they are selling, you should hang up, shop around, and get a better deal than the person who has called you. Refuse to do business with any company that initiates a call to you. At a minimum they are a bad deal.
If you do fall prey to this type of scam, tell someone you trust. That person can help you solve the problem before it gets worse.
Yes, it is embarrassing that you fell prey, but scammers are very good at what they do. They prey on your honesty and good-natured agreeableness. So if you fell prey it is at least partly because you are a good person. But it is also important that someone you trust knows as soon as possible. Everything you do on your computer may be compromised. It is important that you resolve that quickly.
The person that you tell will call a real computer technician who will ensure that your computer is not infected. If you have compromised any credit cards, they will help you call your credit card company, dispute any charges made, and get a new credit card.
2. IRS or Social Security Scam
A scammer pretends to be an IRS investigator or someone from the Social Security Administration. They say that you owe additional taxes or your Social Security Number has been suspended. They claim the authority of the government to scare you into doing what they ask. They talk about the back taxes and penalties owed or say that your Social Security Number has been used in a crime. They then suggest that this can all be cleared up quickly if you will simply wire them money or verify your information.
Neither the Social Security Administration nor the IRS will ever call you. They may send a threatening letter, but they don’t have the personnel to actually initiate a call. Additionally, Social Security numbers are never blocked or suspended. Furthermore, neither agency will send you an email; they can’t count on citizens having an email address.
This scam, like many others, is built on the lie that these government agencies having sophisticated support options. They do not.
If you do fall prey to this type of scam, there are several steps you should take.
First, make sure that you have created your own Social Security account online.
Second, freeze your credit. Scammers are collecting your information in order to do something with it, often opening credit cards in your name. Make that difficult. Freeze your credit. If you have trouble creating a Social Security account, it could be because you have already locked down your credit.
3. Relative in Trouble Scam
A scammer poses as either your relative or someone trying to help your relative through a troubling situation. In its first form, this would be an email from a family member who needs money because they were supposedly mugged in a foreign country. Newer versions involve people who call pretending to be a lawyer who needs you to wire money in order to get a grandson or granddaughter out of jail. Sometimes they know certain information about you, adding a sense of legitimacy to their call. You may even get a chance to talk to your supposed grandchild. It is difficult to understand how upsetting these calls can be until you have helped reassure a client through one of them.
Resist the urge to act immediately, no matter how dramatic the story is. Verify the person’s identity by asking questions that a stranger couldn’t possibly answer. Call a phone number for your family member or friend that you know to be genuine. Check the story out with someone else in your family or circle of friends, even if you’ve been told to keep it a secret.
Scammers can convincingly impersonate your loved ones. They will play on your emotions. They insist that you wire money right away. They will swear you to secrecy. None of what they say is true. Don’t wire money or send a check or money order by overnight delivery or courier.
If you do fall prey to this scam, the money may be lost. Wire transfers are notoriously one way and can’t be undone. Here is a good article on how to try to recover from wire fraud .
4. Lottery Scam
A scammer contacts you claiming you have won a prize. They ask that you give them your account information and pay a fee for shipping and handling. Sometimes they ask for a large amount and sometimes they ask for a small amount. Assuming that you send the small amount, the scammer will then ask for additional funds.
No real lottery would ever call, text, or email you. Neither would they require you to pay money in order to get your prize. There are many laws that govern real sweepstakes. It is illegal for any contest to require a purchase or allow such purchases to increase the odds of winning. Foreign lotteries are against the law.
If you do fall prey to this scam, the solution depends on how you have sent the scammer money. If you have given them a credit card, use the phone number on the back of the card to call the credit card company immediately to dispute the charges. If you have wired the money, it may be lost. Here is the article on how to recover from wire fraud .
5. Sweetheart Scam / Hard Luck Scam
The scammer befriends someone online and gradually convinces them to do favors for them. At first the favors may seems small or trivial, but all the favors are intended to limit their own risk of getting caught and maximize the scammer’s financial gain.
Starting out as a stranger, the scammer will prey on your good nature and willingness to help. They provide alluring and exciting emails. They tell interesting stories. They may ask for something to be shipped to your house. Or they may ask you for money to help because they are down on their luck. They develop a sense of sympathy and trust. And they try to isolate you from your family and friends. Ultimately, they prey on your sense of being competent and they are so grateful that you are helping them be able to handle life.
Another way to describe this scam is the hard luck scam. The scammer doesn’t have to pretend to be a sweetheart. The most common form of this scam is a family with small children who moves into town and joins a local church. The family pretends to be down on their luck. The church rallies their support. After the scam is over the family has moved on.
These scams are often elaborate and can be drawn out over months or years.
The difficulty with the sweetheart (or other heart-breaking needs) scam is that it is difficult to believe that someone would invest the time and effort necessary just to scam people. Over the years, I have seen enough instances where someone’s story has fallen apart that now I am jaded and assume that people are lying or at least holding information back. As cynical as I am, they still surprise me. If they just put the same amount of time and effort into life as they put into the scam they would be successful.
I’ve seen this hard-luck family scam run on churches, military families, and local service groups.
It takes a great deal of wisdom to effectively help people in real need. Often the help they think they need won’t solve the root problem. And until the root problem is solved, they will still have serious money issues.
I have spent a lifetime trying to help those in financial need, and I have learned some important lessons.
My approach is to offer sage advice. I do not offer financial assistance. You cannot teach the important life lesson of living within your means by supplementing their means. And until those lessons have been learned, money will be wasted. This philosophy may seem hardhearted, but it is not. It is the most loving advice that can be given. Learning to live within your means is a difficult discipline. But those lessons build a financial future.
I keep my advice very positive and very doable. The worse their financial situation the more dire my financial advice.
This philosophy also eliminates most of the power of the scam. In the case of a scam, they are counting on your financial help to assist them with their troubles. If you do not provide the help they are looking for, the scammer will ultimately move on.
For the person who is actually in serious financial trouble, there is always debt relief via bankruptcy. For those who are facing desperate financial circumstances, it is better to get professional advice regarding bankruptcy than to feel trapped into taking desperate measures, either illegal or violent. Bankruptcy laws make it possible for people to be forgiven and make a fresh start.
One other defense is to not be isolated. In retirement, one’s social circle can shrink to about nine and a half people they aren’t related to. This can increase the individual’s vulnerability to emotional manipulation. It is important to keep your social circle as large as possible.
Assuming that you have already freely given them money, that money may be lost. However, you can stop giving them money now.
6. Home Repair and Construction Scams
A scammer knocks on your door and says that they are in the neighborhood and willing to do services at a lower rate. They will suggest that they noticed some dire repair that needs to be done immediately and did not want you to take the risk another day longer.
Most of these repairs are not needed. If they are needed, the work may never be completed. Many of these scammers are not licensed to do the work. Although they will insist that they are paid the full amount, they will not do the job correctly.
Don’t work with someone who just happened to be in the neighborhood. Don’t work with any contractor who knocks on your door. Ask your friends for references. Get at least three bids and ask for written estimates. Don’t hire the first person you talk to.
Get a written agreement. Never pay for work up front. And never make a final payment until all work is complete.
If you have already paid for work which has not been completed, call your state Attorney General and make a complaint. If you believe that you have been scammed, you can at a minimum potentially save hundreds of others from the same scam.
7. Investment Scams
Scammers have a host of different investment scams. The investments in these schemes may not even exist, and, even if they do, the scammers are often not licensed to sell securities or the securities they are selling are not registered with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC).
Investment scams can involve stocks, funds, bonds, notes, commodities, annuities, whole life insurance, currency, digital currency, and real estate. There is a wide range of investment scams. The spectrum goes from legitimate investments you should avoid to complete scams that take your money and run. Many in the financial services industry rely on deceptive sales tactics to sell their products.
Some apparently legitimate businesses may be Ponzi schemes. Others may be trying to pump up the price of an investment only to dump their own shares.
If you don’t have experience in the markets, you are probably best investing in low-cost index funds and saving at least 15% of your salary. Currently, low-cost means an expense ratio of less than 0.50% with an average expense ratio of less than 0.25%. You don’t need to know how a scam works in order to be skeptical. It is better to walk away from what appears to be a great deal than to have your life savings taken from you.
We created an entire service level so that people with any amount of money can still receive a fiduciary standard of care.
People tend to invest their money with less research than they would buy something from the internet. Make sure you have done your homework.
I’m often asked if investors should trust their financial advisors. And my short answer, you may be surprised to hear, is “No.” Given all the greed and deceit in the world of financial services you shouldn’t have to trust your financial advisor. In “Ten Questions to Ask a Financial Advisor,” we took our “Safeguarding Your Money” series and turned those safeguards into a series of questions all of which should be answered “Yes.” If investors took these safeguards to heart, other measures would not be necessary.
It is best to never sign anything while you are sitting across the table from a so-called financial professional.
But people don’t value safeguarding their money. They have their biases. They are afraid of missing out on returns. They don’t value liquidity. They can’t even compare the returns of two different investments.
Assuming that you have been scammed. It is best to call immediately and try to get your money back. If they say you can’t, it is best to file an investment complaint immediately. Some companies will let you out of their contract rather than having you file a complaint.
If you have had the investment for a while, it is usually best to get out of a poor investment rather than continue to remain invested. Get out and stay out.
Call a NAPFA fee-only advisor if you want a second opinion. Most have a free no-obligation first meeting.
These are ways to organize your financial life in order to try to generally protect yourself from fraud.
- Recognize that basic protection is your responsibility. No government agency protects you from scams.
- If you have previously succumbed to a scam, change your phone number. Otherwise, your name will be passed around and you will continue to receive an inordinate number of potential scams.
- Install a good virus protection software on your computer.
- Have a computer technician who you have met and can call if you have any questions.
- Never click on pop-ups, offers, etc. Instead, call your computer technician before you do anything else.
- Install a computer password protection vault and learn how to use it.
- Use two-factor authentication.
- Create an online Social Security account.
- Freeze your credit.
- Sign up for the Do Not Call Registry by calling 1-888-382-1222. This probably won’t help stop scams, but it will reduce the number of calls you get soliciting sales.
- Configure your smart phone to avoid ringing unless the person calling is in your contacts database.
- Know that there are always better deals than the person who calls you.
- Rehearse various scams. Practice what to say and what not to say.
- Never send money no matter what someone says.
- Ask for help from someone you know that you can trust.
- Follow the Safeguarding Your Money protocols.
Lastly, if you want to try and take down a scammer, don’t try to take down a scammer alone.
There are a select group of people who enjoy trying to shut down scammers, sometimes working with the police here or in other countries. They don’t work alone. They know what they are doing, and they know how to keep themselves safe as they are doing it. If you have the skill set and think it might be fun, make sure that you work within the law with someone who has some experience.
Photo by Thomas de LUZE on Unsplash