You may see some public notices from governments, nonprofit agencies and consumer organizations warning about increased scammer activity lately. There is a lot of focus on internet and phone scams — everything from fake threats to pay money or fake enticements to get a “deal” on something. People are shopping online and scammers are looking for targets. Any holiday will do. Scammers want to seize the moment when people want to purchase things for others.
These crooks are quite good at what they do. Even the smartest, most savvy elders can be caught off guard at the right moment. Recently, I am seeing more warnings about the “Grandma scam,” still profitable for thieves after years of public warnings about how it works and how to avoid being sucked into it. The predators keep making money and they keep doing it.
Why Do Scammers Focus On Older People?
Why go after grandmas? Because thieves know that many elders are rather trusting, compared with the younger, possibly more internet-competent sector of the population. They know exactly how to play on a person’s emotions, which can override logic at times. Elders living alone are prime targets. The lonely elder who is not getting a lot of socialization may like to talk on the phone. They don’t check the caller ID or are not suspicious of an unrecognized number. They answer the phone when it rings, talk and get fooled. The money grab happens.
Why The Grandma Scam Works
When someone calls the elder, pretending to be a grandchild or pretending to be someone (lawyer, advocate, friend) close to the grandchild, they may have obtained a frightening amount of information about their target already. They tell the elder that their family member is hurt, in a foreign country, or was involved in an accident or other trouble. They may know the grandchild’s name or the city the person lives in. Unsuspecting, the elder’s emotions are triggered, which is exactly what the thief wants.
The scammer, of course, knows that a grandmother or grandfather wants to help a family member in trouble and is more likely to act impulsively as the scammer directs. The elder is told to wire money urgently, send cash or buy a gift card the scammer says will fix the issue. The older person is caught off guard and has not had time to think it over or become suspicious.
People fall for this repeatedly. Logically, in a calm moment, if anyone tells the grandparent a kid is in trouble, the grandparent would check it out. They might call the grandchild, call his parents or otherwise get verification. That doesn’t happen when impulse and reaction out of fear rule the moment. Reasoning takes more time. Scammers count on creating fear and striking fast.
Are Smart People Victimized Less Than Others?
Being “smart” does not guarantee that a person will never react to a perceived threat with an emotional response. Scammers are skilled at setting their target up for an emotional reaction to something they tell you or your loved one. It’s human nature. Emotions under perceived pressure are quite separate from logic and intelligence.
No one is perfectly alert to these tricks 100% of the time, no matter how educated, aware, nor clever the elder may normally be. Many of these scam calls take place in the middle of the night or early in the morning, when the victim is not fully awake. The amount stolen annually from elders in the U.S., from all sources, exceeds $36 billion! These victims are not all naive or uneducated.
How Families Can Help Protect Their Aging Loved Ones
Our law enforcement agencies, government regulators, and nonprofits frequently put out messages about the latest scams, in efforts to educate the public. But it appears to me that our elders are not seeing these warnings. When was the last time Grandma went to the Federal Trade Commission website looking for data on the latest scams? My point is that families are the ones best positioned to educate, warn and watch out for aging parents who may be targeted by scammers.
What To Say To Aging Parents About Fraudsters
At AgingParents.com, where we advise families about age-related issues, including financial abuse, we see it all too often. A demented 83-year-old retired business woman fell for a tax scam and lost $70,000. Others who have been ripped off by fraud, just in our personal experience as advisors, include a retired professor of economics at a university, a CPA, a teacher, a retired investment advisor and a prominent retired doctor. All adult children in a position to have a conversation with elder loved ones need to bring up the subject of financial abuse, worded however it is comfortable for you.
- We want you to know that there are a lot of thieves out there trying to get your money. You’re smart and careful but they can catch you off guard through no fault of your own.
- Here are some of the common things to watch out for—(describe the Grandma scam, fake offers for things like internet service, tax scams, etc.)
- Mom, Dad, Grandma, never give out your personal information, bank account number, Social Security number or other data to anyone who asks for it. Call me/us if you get a demand from anyone asking for that kind of thing. We can help you see if it’s legit or not.
- You can tell when a scammer calls you by some common things: they pretend to be from the government, the court, a law office, or your phone or internet provider. They tell you it’s urgent. They want you to wire money or send a gift card. Neither the government nor any legitimate legal entity will ever call demanding money. Never wire money or buy a gift card because a stranger demands it. Scammers lie for a living. We want you to be smarter than they are.
The FTC keeps a running list of scams and is a good source for families to get information. We can’t be sure that every aging parent will take in this information, nor that they will remember it later. But if you don’t personalize the warnings, tell your loved one in person, or make your best effort to get through to them, they are sitting ducks. Your involvement in warning them will go a lot further to protect them than any public service announcement about scams ever could.
Carolyn Rosenblatt, RN, Attorney, AgingParents.com