We hear about new scams every day. They are very hard to recognize, and it is nearly impossible to stay current on the “scam of the week.” Unfortunately, our senior population is the prime target for fraudsters and scammers. Their diminished capacity simply makes them more vulnerable to undue influence, and the professional scammers capitalize on this—literally.
I postulate that every senior in our country will be solicited by a scammer, and it is almost impossible to stop. There are some steps you can take, however, to protect yourself and minimize the widespread damage caused by identity fraud:
- File a Tax Return Whether You Need To or Not
In my elder law practice, countless clients have told me that they don’t file tax returns because they are under the income limits. And they are! However, notwithstanding the IRS rules and regulations, every person should now file a tax return even if not required.
If a social security number is unlawfully obtained (which is quite easy these days) and used to file tax returns seeking a refund, the senior may never know that the fraudulent return was filed. Refunds are mailed quickly after returns are filed, and the IRS estimates that it sent nearly three million fraudulent refunds out to con-artists in 2013, which cost taxpayers $5.2 billion that year alone. Refunds can be paid out to prepaid debit cards that do not need to be registered, and so the criminal is almost impossible to catch.
Unwinding this mess is a time-consuming process of standing in line for hours.
- Protect Confidential Information
Seniors can lose their ability to appreciate the gravity of exposing personal and confidential information. If they are in an assisted living community, there are many people that can enter and exit their apartment, including cleaning and caregiving staff. The vast majority of them are honest and hardworking people, but some are not. Having unsecured sensitive information in the apartment can be the seed that grows into a full blown identity theft issue.
- Track Purchases and Payments
Seniors are a “protected class” in California (and perhaps in other states) for good reason. They are often the targets of choice for crooks. Their diminished capacity can also affect good decision making even if no fraud is involved. Monitoring a parent’s purchases and payments can clue you into purchases and/or payment requests that just don’t seem right. In my practice, I have seen seniors paying hundreds of dollars a month for magazine subscriptions, memberships, newspapers that they don’t even read, and more.
- Subscribe to Identity Theft Websites
I had my folks each subscribe to one of the nationally recognized identity protection services. It is a small monthly cost for the protection they offer. The service tracks use of social security numbers and more. The quicker you are alerted to a fraudulent credit application, the better your chances of stopping it—and in time to avoid serious financial consequences.
This is also a good way to see if your folks are obtaining credit and whether or not it is in good judgment.
- Alert Seniors to Online Scams
The older population is getting more Internet savvy. However, the scammers are even better! Seniors need to be educated as to what to look for online and how to recognize a possible scam. They need to opt for security rather than satisfying their intrigue of the offer presented to them. Simple instructions as to what to look for in a scam (possibly written out for them) will minimize their exposure.
We all have seen the emails from foreign countries saying that they need you to help by contributing a large sum of money. They ask for critical information such as account numbers and you social security number. Why do we all still get these? Because they still work!
- Alert Seniors to Telephone Scams
Criminals are very creative. Some scammers call seniors pretending to be affiliated with the government and accuse them of not showing up for jury duty. They then tell the senior that there is a warrant out for their arrest, and, out of fear, the senior may give the caller their social security number and other vital contact information.
You need to talk with your aging loved ones REGULARLY and repeat how these scams work and how they should be handled. They may forget and wind up falling victim to one of these ploys.
- Elder Abuse by Professionals
Unfortunately, elder abuse is on the rise and often occurs outside the family setting. An area fraught with temptation is caregiving. There are countless highly dedicated and sensitive caregivers that I applaud and respect for their challenging work. But there are also those few who take advantage of their patients. A caregiver often becomes a trusted friend to the people they care for. If the bond becomes too strong, a caregiver with bad intentions can easily influence a senior in negative ways.
There are countless lawsuits where caregivers had their client execute new estate planning documents or had themselves added as signers on the client’s accounts, systematically draining the patient of their resources. I often suggest that when the senior becomes too friendly, it is time to rotate other caregivers into the care setting, even to the extent of changing care companies.
It is important not to put the senior into the position of being subject to possible undue influence. A private setting in the senior’s home cannot be adequately monitored, so you need to judge the relationship carefully and possibly take action if the bond has become too strong, or you suspect ulterior motives.
Technology advances at lightning speed. Each time you encounter new scam opportunities, remember that your folks are probably being confronted with them as well. Help them protect themselves and stay vigilant. Defending our elders from identity theft and fraud is just one of the many responsibilities we take on as we help care for them. Planning ahead, staying organized, and being aware is the best way to prevent elder abuse of any kind. Don’t fear the eldercare journey, just prepare for it.
Stuart Furman, Esq., is an elder law attorney with over 34 years of experience. He is President of the Southern California Legal Center, Inc. and author of "The ElderCare Ready Book" (2015) and "The ElderCare Ready Pack" (2015).