Scammers are continually devising new sweepstakes, gift card, medication, and romance schemes to trick seniors out of money or into sharing sensitive information. The Government Accountability Office estimates that older Americans lose $2.9 billion through financial fraud each year. And those are just the scams that get reported. The vast majority of them—whether because it’s a small amount of money or the victims feel ashamed and don’t want anyone to know—go unreported.
Here, experts offer some critical steps you can take to help keep vulnerable older adults from being cheated out of their savings.
Commiserate, don’t condescend
Acknowledging that scams happen across demographics, and using that as a way in to talk to older loved ones, can help make the conversation productive, not condescending. Amy Nofziger, director of fraud victim support for the AARP, says that sharing knowledge rather than lecturing is the best way in. “Just saying, ‘Oh, my gosh, Mom, I just read this article about an email scam. Do you want me to help set your email box up so anybody who is in your contacts is a high priority?’” is a great place to start, she notes. “Or, ‘I don’t recommend looking at your spam email, Mom. I would just delete it.’”
Use technology to your advantage
There’s some evidence that online scammers target younger people, while older adults are more likely to answer the phone, opening the door to telephone scams. “A really great first place to start is tackling their phone and setting up barriers for protection,” Nofziger says.
First, put in contacts for all the people your loved one might be expecting phone calls from—friends, relatives, doctors, the local pharmacy. “It can even be fun putting their photo in so when that person calls, a picture of them comes up,” she says. Then, go into settings (the specifics will vary by phone), and choose the option for all unknown numbers to go directly to voicemail.
“More often than not, anybody who is calling you with an emergency situation will be in your contacts,” Nofziger says. “And if it is someone calling from a different phone number and has to get a hold of you, they will leave you a message, and then you are under no pressure because…you’re just listening to their message and can decide if you want to call them back or not.”
You can take a similar approach for email. Nofziger suggests setting up email contacts so that messages from your loved one’s address book get priority, and spam gets filtered out and trashed.
Make a script
Phone scammers rely on our innate sense of courtesy and also the element of surprise. If someone calls with an urgent message about your car warranty, or your supposed IRS bill, it can be easy to be taken in and keep listening instead of getting off the phone. Nofziger suggests coming up with a simple script to keep next to the phone to refer to during such calls. Simple but authoritative statements, such as “I don’t do business over the phone,” or “I know this is a scam because you’re asking for a gift card,” or ”I have to check this out with my son who is a police officer, first,” are all good places to start, she says. “A lot of victims that I talk to say, ‘You know, I was just caught off guard when they called me or when they came to the door, and I didn’t know what to say.’”
Beware of sudden changes
There’s a good deal of awareness around phone and online scams, says Nichole Lighthall, director of the Adult Development and Decision Lab, and assistant professor of psychology at the University of Central Florida. But the more insidious form of scams for older adults are interpersonal. She points to “relationships of undue influence,” as schemes that may drain the victim’s life savings.
“This is where somebody comes into the victim’s life, potentially through false pretenses…and inserts themselves into their life and ends up being on their will, or having joint bank accounts,” she says. “They could be in what looks like a legitimate relationship, maybe a romantic relationship, and [the scammer is] basically taking resources over a very long period of time.”
Older adults who are isolated, who have lost a spouse or another person who has been a stable connection are especially vulnerable to this kind of scam, says Lighthall. If your loved one suddenly makes decisions that seem out of character, is spending a lot of time with a new person (sometimes even another family member), stops paying their bills on time, is ungroomed, or seems to be less in control of their own life, you should be concerned about undue influence.
The best way to prevent these interpersonal scams, and really all confidence schemes, is to check in regularly. Have conversations about email and phone scams, which evolve all the time, and share resources like the AARP scam hotline. Connect with your loved ones and meet the people in their life. If you’re far away, figure out a system to video chat so you can see what they look like.
“Visiting your loved one, making yourself present, checking in, calling, inserting yourself into their life as a protective barrier, or an overseer of some sort, or even just as a companion to offset some of the loneliness is a good idea,” says Lighthall.