Fleecing seniors: Scammers target the elderly for financial abuse

Published: Sunday, July 15 2012 4:00 p.m. MDT

He says research shows caregivers start to identify with the property of the person they're tending to; as a daughter cares for her mom, she starts to feel her mom's things are hers. When a friend's elderly parents died, the friend asked the paid caregiver if she'd like a memento. She wanted the car. "(The family was) thinking of something like a salt shaker." The caregiver had driven her charge to appointments in it. She felt like the car was hers.

Or consider, he says, four hypothetical siblings. One, Michael, lives at home and cares for his dad, who is old and frail. Soon, the siblings are calling each other: "Michael has put his name on the account and wants the house. He acts like he owns everything."

Michael's thought may be very simple, Cole says: "Where's everyone else? I'm changing Dad's Depends."

When a stranger calls

Stranger fraud is most often based on emotion, says Doug Shadel, who leads AARP Washington and wrote the AARP book "Outsmarting the Scam Artists." When researchers interviewed con men, they learned the goal is to get a "mark" excited, negatively or positively, then make the mark mad.

The scams of diverse con men shared points, including what Shadel calls "phantom riches" that promised to make a lot of money, sources that harped on their own trustworthiness, an "everyone is doing it" theme, warnings that "time is running out," assurance it's a great deal and references to a make-believe kinship with the con: "Do this for me, your friend."

Recent studies that looked at those persuasion statements found those who were victimized were more responsive to them than the general public was — even if they'd been defrauded before, Shadel says.

The who: victims and perps

While financial fraud can hit nearly anyone, no matter how limited their assets, the elderly seem more vulnerable. AARP Foundation researchers studied scam victims of all ages, hoping to note traits those victims shared. Those victimized averaged 69 years old, Shadel says, and most were "more open to sales presentations in general and more engaged in the marketplace than non-victims."

They were not naive or unintelligent. "The people we interviewed are doctors, lawyers, college professors." One of the latter fell for a fake movie deal, spurred by boredom and hoping to meet movie stars.

Senior citizens may be slightly easier to target because they listen politely and don't interrupt. Shadel advocates a refusal script and tells seniors to practice it and keep it where they can refer to it. "I'm sorry. This is not a good time. Thank you for calling." Click.

Women were almost twice as likely as men to be defrauded, and most victims were in their 80s, lived alone and needed some help as they hung onto vestiges of independence. Most of the perpetrators were males. Those who targeted strangers, the MetLife study says, often looked for vulnerabilities like limited mobility, living alone or apparent confusion.

Pick an approach

Experts shared a sampling of methods used to cheat the elderly:

In one rental scam, a too-large check is sent to cover the deposit, month's rent, etc., then the renter "discovers" the error and begs the landlord to wire the money back. The check is bogus, so it sparks fees, besides loss of the money that was returned.

A scammer buys an item on eBay or Craigslist, says Andrew Schrage of Money Crashers (www.moneycrashers.com), then pays with a fake check or cancels the check and the seller is out both money and item.

Friends or relatives may forge documents or steal checks. They get signing rights on a bank account and withdraw funds. A son persuades his mom to take out a home equity loan and uses the money.

The senior is told she won a prize but must pay something first to collect.

Seniors are sold deferred annuities or reverse mortgages that hurt them financially. Cole says 80-year-olds have been persuaded to tie up their money for 20 years to "protect" it. One man invested in an annuity that matures in 2063. To access it sooner, there's a big surrender penalty. The salesman pocketed a hefty commission. It is also legal.

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