US Senator Susan Collins dubbed it a “growing epidemic.” The National Council on Aging (NCOA) called it “devastating to many older adults.” While these comments may seem like they’re referencing a healthcare issue, they actually sound the alarm about another pressing topic: senior fraud in the digital age.
Below, we take a closer look at the issue as well as discuss ways you can keep your aging loved one—and their nest egg—safe from online scammers.
What We Know About Elder Financial Exploitation
A February 2019 Consumer Finance Protection Bureau report reveals troubling data about the state of fraud against older adults in this country: The number of annual elder financial exploitation (EFE) reports quadrupled between 2013 and 2017. In 2017 alone, there were 63,500 EFE filings and a staggering $1.7 billion in losses and attempted thefts.
Unfortunately, these statistics may not capture the full scope of the problem. Many incidents of senior financial fraud go unreported because the individual may be too confused, fearful or embarrassed about the crime to alert the proper authorities.
Aging adults have long been attractive targets for scammers because of the ways they use—or don’t use—technology. According to NCOA, “the slower speed of adoption among some older people makes them easier targets for automated internet scams that are ubiquitous on the web and email programs...Their unfamiliarity with the less visible aspects of browsing the web (firewalls and built-in virus protection, for example) [also] make seniors especially susceptible to such traps.”
Recent changes in the digital landscape have also made aging adults more vulnerable. In a guide on the breadth and depth of online predatory practices, the FBI reported that “Criminals are modifying their targeting techniques—using not only traditional telephone calls and mass mailings but also online scams like phishing and email spamming.” Therefore, it’s crucial that caregivers take steps to stay ahead of these tactics and protect their loved ones from senior fraud.
Tips for Keeping Seniors Safe
According to Fidelity, the first step to safeguarding your aging loved one and their finances is accepting they’re potential targets. “Financial elder fraud is a sophisticated online endeavor, and it can happen to anyone,” says Dr. Tim Habbershon, Fidelity's Managing Director of Family Engagement. “Normalizing awareness is key to helping you avoid it or navigating a crisis event as a family.”
Next, start a dialogue. Make sure your loved one is aware of the threat and open to discussing it with you. Elizabeth Loewy, former founding chief of the New York County District Attorney's Office Elder Abuse Unit, recommends leading by example. “It is really about just talking," she told Fidelity. "Start with your own situation. You might say, 'I want an extra set of eyes on my financial accounts. Would you mind getting alerts if something happens? I can do the same for you.' You make it a 2-way street."
Also, use this opportunity to discuss basic internet safety tips for seniors such as shredding credit card receipts and bank statements, closing out unused credit cards and bank accounts and refraining from giving out personal information.
A family financial management plan is another great way to avoid senior fraud while simultaneously promoting transparency. When collecting contact information for your parents’ trusted advisors or log-ins for online accounts, always ask for your parents’ permission. Many seniors fear losing their independence, so giving them a choice—as well as honoring their wants and needs—can be reassuring, especially for those living with dementia or another form of cognitive decline.
If your parents’ finances are complicated, experts recommend paring down and simplifying, whenever possible. You may also consider delegating specific financial tasks to different family members. For example, one person might monitor credit card accounts, while another might handle investment accounts. Schedule routine family meetings to make sure you’re all on the same page.
Lastly, be aware of the warning signs of elder financial abuse. According to NOLO, these include unusual or large withdrawals or transfers; unexplainable credit card charges; a new individual in your aging loved one’s life who has access to his/her home, money, and property; changes in account beneficiaries and authorized signers and sudden social isolation.
If you do suspect that senior fraud has occurred, know that help is available. Contact your financial institution, local law enforcement or organizations like the National Adult Protective Services Association as soon as possible.