By Michael Gurian
Author of The Wonder of Aging, with Jay P. Gurian, Ph.D.
My 83-year-old father lost every cent he had. It happened slowly, and he never knew it was happening. Neither did his kids (myself included)—nor did his two sisters, my aunts, nor the staff or his friends at the retirement community he lived in. When everything unraveled and the police and I talked, a detective said, “It’ll take a while for us to get this criminal charged. We have so many of these cases a day to deal with. This is going on everywhere.”
Here is what happened: A few months after the passing of my mother at my parents’ longtime home in Santa Rosa, Calif., my father (a retired university professor and state department official), was told by his doctor that he needed to move to a drier climate because of his respiratory issues. He sold the house and moved to a retirement community in Las Vegas, where he had been raised decades before. His life was going well and he enjoyed relatively good health. He visited family members there, was still independent, driving, and able to do nearly anything he wanted to do.
In the retirement community, he met a man of about 40, “John,” who was helping another resident. Dad and John had a lot in common and hit it off. Soon, John began to do things for and with Dad and then, unbeknownst to anyone, took money out of my father’s accounts—he stole my father’s Social Security number by helping my father with some Internal Revenue Service tax payment issues. John further involved my father in investment schemes, convincing Dad to close his IRAs and “reinvest” them “in much better deals, so you can leave more of a legacy to your children and grandchildren.”
When Dad called me one day and said, “Mike, something has happened.” He had lost everything. His pain and shame were so severe that he contemplated suicide. Fortunately, a year later, he has recovered from the tragedy with new mission—he now lives five minutes from my house in Spokane, Wash., and plans only to return to Las Vegas for John’s trial; meanwhile, he wants to help others not fall into the traps of elder fraud. As he says, “This can happen to anyone, even the smartest person you know. Predators are, unfortunately, smarter than us as individual elders—but they are not smarter than all of us working together.”
7 Warning Signs of Potential Abuse and Fraud, from My Dad’s Point of View
1. The scammer may find you after a tragedy (my wife died a few months before I met John) and is probably younger than you, treats you like a valued elder, helps curb your loneliness, does fun things with you, and is sympathetic to your situation regarding some area of deep family need (e.g. your children’s and grandchildren’s financial needs and your assistance or legacy to them).
2. The scammer offers to help you settle any outstanding payment situations, IRS matters, etc. because he (or she) has experience with the law and/or accounting in such situations. As the scammer is helping you, s/he explains availability with something like, “I work nights, so I’m available during the day to help you.”
3. If you are a veteran receiving benefits and/or getting treatments at any hospital/clinic, the scammer may well offer to assist you—transport you there, help you with wheelchair or walker, graciously offer to present your ID and check your appointment time with the nurse or cashier—easily ending up with your wallet or ID packet for long enough to record numbers for later use.
4. The scammer may represent his/her own family as loving, and in need of attention—a wayward sister or demented brother or desperately ill father—and work it psychologically so that you finally give him money to help him/her with the troubled family. All of this is about building sympathy, love, and a connection with you that s/he will later exploit.
5. The scammer will be adept at use of Internet, cell phones, and tablets whereas you may not even understand how they work. “To help you,” the scammer will check your bank accounts online for you or conduct “transactions” for you, showing you the “transaction” onscreen that looks kosher to you but may well be entirely fictional, while pocketing the money you have given in good faith for the transaction to occur.
6. The scammer will have a better MEMORY than you. The scammer prays on the fact that we are proud elders who think (or want to think) we’re as mentally adept as we once were. This illusion about ourselves is our weak spot, and the scammer will exploit it with superior memory and other cognitive skills, but since the scammer is doing everything “for us,” we won’t notice.
7. The scammer may well take pains to warn you about other scammers: What to avoid, how to sense or sniff out scamming—thus building your trust in this scammer as your one shield against exploitation.
7 Tips for Avoiding Elder Fraud, from the Adult Child’s Point of View
1. Google and background check anyone your parent(s) spend a lot of time with, especially if the person or people are younger. If I or my siblings or relatives had googled the name of the person my father was having so much fun with, his criminal record would have shown up in seconds.
2. Check the friend’s identification. You can do this politely but firmly with something like “There’s so much weird stuff going on these days, you can understand my protectiveness.” John claimed to be an accountant. My father needed help with accounting because my mother did all the family finances for 60 years before she died. John, as an “accountant,” even went into the IRS to help my father with a tax issue. He was that bold. Of course, he was not an accountant—a comprehensive ID check would have shown this.
3. Check your parents’ bank and credit cards online at least once a month. Show your parents this article and others like it and convince them to let you go online with them to look for any strange withdrawals, spending, etc. In my father’s case, neither the bank nor the credit card companies called Dad to tell him something was going on in his accounts. The criminal was that good at keeping all authorities at bay.
4. Believe what your parents say, but keep pressing them anyway. Talk on the phone every few days, visit your parent(s) a couple times a week, if you are in proximity, and have grandkids, including grown ones, visit. As you visit, ask for permission to talk about friends, bank accounts, credit cards, anything pertinent to finances. It may take a number of visits to convince your parent(s) that you’re not trying to rip them off or steal their independence. Let it take as many visits as it takes, just keep on it.
5. Do things with and for your parents so you are near them more than perhaps you have planned to be. By doing things with them—taking them to the doctor, shopping, going to movies, going to lunches together–you can better gauge how their lives are really going, and whether they need help with ‘new friends’ or with banking issues.
6. Stay vigilant for signs of stress or loneliness, especially after the death of a loved one. In my father’s case, he seemed to be doing well after my mom’s passing, but he was having more dementia, stress, and grief issues than he would admit to. We did not notice his vulnerability well enough.
7. Get a POA (Power of Attorney) for and with your parents, if any dementia or other mental condition begins to manifest. There are POAs that do not disempower your parents of their rights—find a POA and a lawyer who can craft something appropriate for your parent’s needs for independence. But make sure you have the power to look into bank accounts, IRAs, and credit cards to check activity.
Get relationship tips. Find help with your love life. Have a happy marriage. Sign up for our newsletter!
Sign up to receive the latest tips on Money & Career: