Millions of older adults fall prey to financial scams every year.
Use these tips from the National Council on Aging and the Women's Institute for a Secure Retirement to protect yourself or an older adult you know.
1. Be aware that you are at risk from strangers — and from those closest to you.
More than 90 percent of all reported elder abuse is committed by the older person’s family members, most often their adult children, followed by grandchildren, nieces and nephews, and others.
Common tactics include depleting a joint checking account, promising but not delivering care in exchange for money or property, outright theft and other forms of abuse, including physical abuse, threats, intimidation and neglect of basic care needs.
Everyone is at risk of financial abuse, even people without high incomes or assets. Understand the top 10 most common scams targeting seniors, so you can spot one before it's too late.
2. Don't isolate yourself — stay involved!
Isolation is a huge risk factor for elder abuse. Most family violence occurs behind closed doors, and elder abuse is no exception.
Some older people self-isolate by withdrawing from the larger community. Others are isolated because they lose the ability to drive, see or walk about on their own. Some seniors fear being victimized by purse snatchings and muggings if they venture out.
Visit Eldercare Locator to find services nearby that can help you stay active. Or contact your local senior center to get involved.
3. Always tell solicitors: “I never buy from (or give to) anyone who calls or visits me unannounced. Send me something in writing.”
Don't buy from an unfamiliar company and always ask for and wait until you receive written material about any offer or charity.
Neighborhood children you know who are selling Girl Scout cookies or school fundraising items may be an exception, but a good rule of thumb is to never donate if it requires you to write your credit card information on any forms.
It's also good practice to obtain a salesperson's name, business identity, telephone number, street address, mailing address and business license number before you transact business.
And always take your time in making a decision.
4. Shred all receipts with your credit card number.
Identity theft is a huge business. To protect yourself, invest in — and use — a paper shredder.
Monitor your bank and credit card statements and never give out personal information over the phone to someone who initiates the contact with you.
5. Sign up for the “Do Not Call” list and take yourself off multiple mailing lists.
Visit www.donotcall.gov to stop telemarketers from contacting you.
Be careful with your mail. Do not let incoming mail sit in your mailbox for a long time. When sending out sensitive mail, consider dropping it off at a secure collection box or directly at the post office.
You also can regularly monitor your credit ratings and check on any unusual or incorrect information at www.AnnualCreditReport.com.
To get more tips on protecting yourself from fraud, visit www.Onguardonline.gov, which has interactive games to help you be a smarter consumer on issues of related to spyware, lottery scams and other swindles.
6. Use direct deposit for benefit checks to prevent checks from being stolen from the mailbox.
Using direct deposit ensures that checks go right into your accounts and are protected. Clever scammers or even scrupulous loved ones have been known to steal benefits checks right out of mailboxes or from seniors’ homes if they are laying around.
7. Never give your credit card, banking, Social Security, Medicare, or other personal information over the phone unless you initiated the call.
Misuse of Medicare dollars is one of the largest scams involving seniors. Common schemes include billing for services never delivered and selling unneeded devices or services to beneficiaries.
Protect your Medicare number as you do your credit card, banking and Social Security numbers, and do not allow anyone else to use it. Be wary of salespeople trying to sell you something they claim will be paid for by Medicare.
Review your Medicare statements to be sure you have in fact received the services billed, and report suspicious activities to 1-800-MEDICARE.
8. Be skeptical of all unsolicited offers and do thorough research.
Be an informed consumer. Take the time to call and shop around before making a purchase. Take a friend with you who may offer some perspective to help you make difficult decisions.
Also, carefully read all contracts and purchasing agreements before signing and make certain that all of your requirements have been put in writing. Understand all contract cancellation and refund terms.
As a general rule governing all of your interactions as a consumer, do not allow yourself to be pressured into making purchases, signing contracts or committing money. These decisions are yours and yours alone.
Protect Your Loved Ones
If you know or care for an older adult, here are some additional warning signs that may indicate they are the victim of financial abuse:
- There are unusual recent changes in the person’s accounts, including atypical withdrawals, new person(s) added or sudden use of a senior’s ATM or credit card.
- The senior suddenly appears confused, unkempt and afraid.
- Utility, rent, mortgage, medical or other essential bills are unpaid despite adequate income.
- A caregiver will not allow others access to the senior.
- There are piled-up sweepstakes mailings, magazine subscriptions or “free gifts,” which means the senior may be on “sucker lists.”
Every state operates an Adult Protective Services program, which is responsible for receiving and investigating reports of elder abuse, neglect and exploitation, and in most states, the abuse of younger adults with severe disabilities.
Adult Protective Services is the “911” for elder abuse. Anyone who suspects elder abuse, neglect or exploitation should make a report. The reporter’s identity is protected. The services are confidential, so the reporter may not be able to learn the outcome of the case.
Adult Protective Services respects the right of older persons to make their own decisions and to live their lives on their own terms. In cases of cognitive impairment, however, the agency will take steps to protect the older person to the degree possible.
Steps to Take if You're a Victim
If you think you've been scammed, don’t be afraid or embarrassed to talk about it — waiting could only make it worse. Immediately:
- Call your bank and/or credit card company.
- Cancel any debit or credit cards linked to the stolen account.
- Reset your personal identification number(s).
Also, contact legal services and Adult Protective Services if warranted. To find your local offices, visit Eldercare Locator or call toll-free at (800) 677-1116 weekdays, 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Eastern time.
© 2012 National Council on Aging. All Rights Reserved.