When Ruth Heimer's family noticed she was writing as many as 75 checks per month to scammers and fraudulent businesses, they knew they had to step in and take a closer look at her finances.
What they uncovered was a surprising state of affairs. Heimer, a retired schoolteacher, was spending over one-third of her income on frivolous purchases ranging from donations to illegitimate charities, to sending money to an internet con-man who was pretending to be a relative in need of cash.
The ensuing months were fraught with difficult conversations between Heimer and her well-meaning family. Her grandson, Kai Stinchcombe, recalls the main challenge these discussions presented, "We were torn between preserving her independence and protecting her wallet."
Heimer's family may have been shocked, but her scenario is all too typical. Approximately 7.3 million older Americans have been the victim of financial abuse, according to a survey conducted by Investor Protection Trust, a nonprofit investor education organization.
The bank advised the family to take away Heimer's checkbook so she wouldn't be able to write any more unnecessary check; but doing so would have prevented her from paying her own bills or purchasing her own groceries—two activities that she could still perform competently and didn't want to give up.
The family was caught in a common dilemma; they wanted Heimer to remain as independent as possible, but they knew they couldn't let her finances to remain in jeopardy.
Making money management easier for family caregivers
This problem provided the spark that inspired Stinchcombe to come up with a tool to help older adults and their families meet in the middle when it comes to financial management.
Along with co-founder, Claire McDonnell, Stinchcombe created the True Link Prepaid Visa card to act as an elder-focused alternative to the traditional credit or debit card.
The card functions like a regular pre-paid Visa, which means it can be registered in an elderly loved one's name and can be used to pay any vendor who accepts Visa debit cards. Social Security checks and other outside sources of income can be direct deposited on the card, and money can be loaded on to it from a separate bank account.
Family caregivers (or the elders themselves) can act as the account holder, customizing the controls based on what the card will be used for and what particular types of fraud they want to prevent. True Link uses constantly-updated algorithms to keep tabs on trending elder scams so that they can preemptively block payments to suspected fraudsters.
"We regularly hear from families with an elderly member who has lost most or all of their retirement savings to a scam," says McDonnell. She describes one case where a retired building manager had worked and saved for 50 years, only to lose 75 percent of his savings to sweepstakes contests. By the time his daughter found out what was going on, most of his retirement fund was gone.
The notion of a pre-paid debit card is nothing new—most financial institutions offer at least one—and they can be a great way to put an elder on a budget.
According to McDonnell, the biggest difference between True Link and a traditional card is the ability of the account holder to set up a "personalized fraud blocker" which, among other things, can disallow purchases from certain merchants. For example, if your mother is spending too much money on unnecessary magazine subscriptions and home shopping channels, you can flag those vendors. If she attempts to make a payment to them using the True Link Visa, it won't go through.
Account holders can also set up spending limits, prevent (or allow) ATM cash withdrawals, and sign up for email and text alerts of suspicious activity. The individual managing the account will also receive regular reports charting the cardholder's purchases.
The goal of the card is to strike a better balance between autonomy and security for aging adults who may not be capable of making the most prudent financial decisions, such as those in the early stages of Alzheimer's or another form of dementia.
True Link Prepaid Visa cards are currently available for order on the True Link website.
How to prevent elder financial abuse
For adult children in particular, talking to aging parents about money is a somewhat taboo topic.
Unfortunately, this lack of transparency enables scammers, who view the elderly as "easy" prey, to stay one step ahead.
Elder financial abuse comes in many different forms, from a simple forged signature to the more complex "sweetheart scam" where an individual pretends to fall in love with an older adult to gain access to their assets.
Signs of financial abuse may not be easy for other family members to spot, especially if an elder intentionally hides their monetary issues out of fear of being denied control over their finances. Unpaid bills, unusual bank account activity and unexplained changes made to a will are all indicators that an elder may be the victim of financial abuse, according to the National Institute on Financial Services for Elders.
A few easy strategies to prevent the elderly from becoming scam victims include: limiting financial power of attorney, making use of automatic bill pay features and having regular checks (such as monthly Social Security) direct deposited into an elder's bank account.
While there is no one-size-fits-all-approach to helping a loved one safely manage their money, keeping a a close watch on an aging adult's financial situation and making use of appropriate tools (such as the prepaid card offered by True Link) may make the process easier for family caregivers.
What steps have you taken to prevent your loved one from being scammed? What do you think about this new kind of debit card?