Consumer Alert: Con artists targeting seniors

Tip sheet prepared by Home Instead Senior Care and the National Association of Triads.

(Statewide) February 13, 2007 - While con games have changed with the times, the practice of defrauding consumers of all ages is nothing new.  When the target is a senior, however, the stakes have never been higher, say senior care experts. Senior scams are costing older adults their life savings, their homes and even their lives.

From investment fraud to lottery and sweepstakes scams to home improvement schemes, seniors often are sitting ducks for a criminal looking to make fast cash. According to 2005 statistics from the National Fraud Information Center, 22 percent of telemarketing scam complaints were logged by those over the age of 70, which represents the highest percentage of any demographic group that year.

What makes older adults so vulnerable to tricksters, scammers and con criminals? It appears that physical and psychological needs are at the heart of this issue, according to research and anecdotes from senior experts.

"Seniors often worry they will outlive their money and are concerned that they might not be able to continue to live the lifestyle to which they have become accustomed," said Cathy Raynor, from the Home Instead Senior Care® office serving Richland and Lexington Counties.  "That's among the concerns that we've heard seniors express and one reason we believe they are so vulnerable to scams," she added.  "Some may get caught up in these schemes because they are looking for ways to improve their financial situations."

Research confirms that criminals may cater to these types of worries. Off the Hook Again: Understanding Why the Elderly Are Victimized by Economic Fraud Crimes, a report prepared just months ago by the Consumer Fraud Research Group for WISE Senior Services and the NASD (National Association of Securities Dealers) Investor Education Foundation, revealed that fraud pitches are tailored to meet the psychological needs of a potential senior victim.

"Audiotapes of pitches showed that the con criminal will use one kind of appeal for the lottery fraud victim that may prey on the fact that person is a widow and feels deprived in life," the report said. "But con criminals will use a different kind of pitch for the investment fraud victim who is more likely to be male, self-reliant and knowledgeable about finances."

It was that kind of psychological need that attracted a woman in her late 80s living in a metropolitan area on the East Coast and suffering from dementia to the automobile dealership that sold her a car she could never drive.

Here's what happened: The woman, unhappy that her driver's license had been suspended after three accidents, spotted a promotional ad from a car dealership. She called the dealership, and a sales representative arranged for the woman and her 92-year-old husband to be transported to the car lot where they were sold an automobile for $5,000 above the sticker price. Because her hands were shaking, the dealership actually wrote the check for her.

Home Instead CAREGiversSM, who had been hired by the couple's family to help watch out for them, called the family when they spotted the new car.  Home Instead Senior Care then worked with the couple's relatives to force the car dealership to return the car and reimburse the seniors their money.

"Sadly, seniors and their families must be on guard for cons like this and many others," said Raynor.  "Families of seniors who sometimes live in other cities will call upon our CAREGivers - who are screened, trained, bonded and insured - to serve as a second set of eyes to help protect their loved ones."

Because scammers often target seniors who are alone or appear lonely, just knowing that a senior has someone to look out for him or her can be an important deterrent and help prevent devastating consequences. "If a con criminal can call seniors and get them to give up their Social Security number, they can create any type of transaction," said Edward Hutchison, program director of the National Association of Triads, Inc., an 18-year-old organization that is part of the National Sheriffs' Association.

The national organization has spawned 847 state triads, which have created SALT (Seniors and Law Enforcement Together) Councils in their communities. These local chapters, designed to bring together senior volunteers, law enforcement and the community, have 17,000 volunteers who go into the homes and organizations of seniors to talk about safety. The organization, whose mission is overall senior safety, is devoting more of its time to these types of issues.  "Within the last three years, we've been focusing predominately on senior fraud, scams and elder abuse," Hutchison said.

"We've seen how individuals have taken out mortgages on seniors' homes and who have filed quitclaim deeds on property and taken over to remove seniors from their homes. Or they open up joint checking accounts with the criminal's and senior's name," he added.

What's worse, seniors can get on a "sucker's list" where they continue to be the victims of unscrupulous people. And that can result in legal issues that may outlive even the senior. One Journal of the American Medical Association study showed that victims of elder mistreatment, including exploitation, have a three times higher mortality rate than non-victims.

When con criminals infiltrate, tragedy can result for a senior who is often just looking out for the best interests of his or her family. And that consequence can be the biggest crime of all. "Most seniors just want to leave a legacy to their children and grandchildren," Hutchison said.  "Criminals prevent some from doing just that."

Top Five Senior Scams

Following, from the National Association of Triads, Inc., an 18-year-old organization that is part of the National Sheriffs' Association, and Home Instead Senior Care, are the top five senior scams and how they work:

Prizes and sweepstakes scams.  Seniors are told they've won a sweepstakes and all they need to do is send a check to cover the taxes. Or, they receive a fake check for $5,000 and are encouraged to deposit the money and send back $2,000 to cover the taxes. By the time it's determined that these checks, which often come from an overseas bank, are worthless, the senior has lost his or her money. Magazine sale scams, where seniors order magazine subscriptions that never show up, also are prevalent.

Home improvement frauds.  Criminals will knock on a senior's door offering to fix their driveway, then paint it black and charge the senior $3,000. Or seniors are asked to pay up front to have their roof fixed never to see their alleged repairman again. One 81-year-old woman who was caring for her husband with Alzheimer's disease paid a criminal $800,000 and drained her savings to have repairs done on her home, according to the National Association of Triads, Inc.

Phishing schemes.  Seniors receive a call from someone claming to represent a bank or other reputable financial institution. They're warned that their financial information or credit card has been compromised and are asked to verify their bank account number or call an 800 number where they're asked for their personal financial information.

Internet fraud.  Seniors, unfamiliar with how to use the Internet, can unwittingly give their credit card number to a scammer. 

Identity theft.  Seniors who give up their birth date and Social Security number can open up their entire financial history to a thief.

What You Can Do To Protect Seniors

Following, from the National Association of Triads, Inc. and Home Instead Senior Care, are ways that family caregivers can protect their senior loved ones:

1.  Watch for unusual activity.  Seniors who are scammed may be embarrassed and try to hide what happened. Watch for changes in their lifestyle as well as any other unusual financial or business activity.

2.  Be on guard for individuals who have befriended your loved one.  Lonely or isolated seniors may be vulnerable to con criminals who befriend them and provide them with companionship. Ask to talk to your parent's new friend to find out more about him or her. A thief won't stick around long to chat.

3.  Investigate organizations looking for money.  Often seniors want to donate to organizations and other worthy causes. Help your loved ones check those out by requesting written information on the organization and reviewing that thoroughly. Or contact the Better Business Bureau.

4.  Assist seniors with their finances.  If a senior can no longer handle his or her finances, encourage your loved one to put a plan in place that can help ensure bills are paid and his or her assets are protected. That plan may include your senior designating a financial power of attorney.

5.  Destroy information that could be compromised.  Make sure your senior shreds all financial information and credit card offers before discarding them in the trash.

6.  Seek out a second set of eyes.  If you live a distance from your loved one or can't always be there, help your senior build a support network. This can include neighbors, friends, trusted church members or professional CAREGivers like those from Home Instead Senior Care.

Additional Telemarketing and Internet Fraud Tips are available from the National Fraud Information Center at

Posted 6:00am by Chantelle Janelle