When I was a child, my grandmother often watched me while my parents were away. One day, I was sitting at the kitchen table while she made a sandwich for me, and the phone rang.
My grandmother answered, and a deep, muffled voice said “Mom? Thank God, I need help.” The man, claiming to be my dad, told her he had been stranded and horribly injured, and needed her to drive to his location with money.
My grandmother was shaken, but promised to send help right away. She quickly hung up and tried to get a hold of my mom. Thankfully, my dad was the one to answer the phone, completely healthy and carefree.
I look back and still shudder at what could have happened if my grandmother had driven to where the man told her. It was my first introduction to con artists who take advantage of the elderly, but it continues to be a major issue. In fact, losses from elder fraud cases cost more than $36 billion in 2015, according to a True Link Financial report on financial elder abuse.
Preying on the elderly
The elderly are targeted by con artists because they tend to be less familiar with the latest technology and trends. They’re less likely to recognize an email from a fraudulent “bank,” for example, asking for personal information. Worse, many seniors are simply lonely and isolated. Scammers prey on that. A kind, friendly voice on the other end of the phone can be convincing. And once a scam is complete, the victims often feel so bad about falling for it in the first place that it prevents them from reporting the crime to the police or even family members. (See also: What to Do When You Suspect a Scam)
How to protect your loved ones
Shielding your elderly parents or relatives from harm can be difficult, especially if they live alone. These four tips can help prevent con artists from successfully targeting them.
1. Have a family code word
Come up with a family code word to use when there’s a real emergency. Pick an odd word that has meaning to your family and is easy to remember. That way, if someone calls claiming to be a family member in need of help, your elderly relative can prompt them for the code word to verify their claim.
If my family had a code word and my father really needed help, stating our designated word would have shown my grandmother it was a legitimate crisis. A scammer would have no idea, and would be revealed as soon as they couldn’t relay the word.
2. Encourage them to ignore the phone
Many scammers will call just to find out if a person lives alone. Program your loved ones’ phones with the numbers of family and friends, and encourage them to not answer the phone if they don’t recognize the number.
If a caller leaves a voicemail saying they’re with a particular company — for example, a bank or credit card issuer — show your relative how to verify the number by looking up the company online, rather than just blindly returning the phone call. Taking that extra step to check a bank or credit card company’s information can save your loved one from falling for a trick.
3. Help monitor accounts
If your relative is comfortable with this, offer to check over credit card or bank statements. Review them periodically for odd purchases. This is not quite the same as taking over your loved one’s finances; it’s just providing a second set of eyes. If your homebody great-aunt suddenly has charges for a Vegas shopping spree, for example, you’ll be able to alert her and help dispute the charges right away.
Some banks will let even you monitor the account, but won’t give you access to the funds, which can give your loved ones peace of mind.
4. Check AARP’s Fraud Watch Network
Some scams are regional, affecting only certain cities or neighborhoods. And the latest iterations of fraud can evolve over time, preying on the unsuspecting.
AARP’s Fraud Watch Network reports on fraud trends both nationally and locally. If you sign up for their alerts, you will receive notifications about scams happening in your area. By getting those alerts, you can warn your elderly relatives and friends about potential con artists and how they work.