Don't Let Grandma Get Scammed

Scams on ederly
Scams on ederly

Poor Grandma. It's bad enough that she needs to wear hearing aids and cut back on salt. Now she's become a prime target for scammers.

According to a recent survey from MetLife (MET):

  • The elderly lose nearly $3 billion annually to financial abuse.

  • Women are nearly twice as likely to be victims as men.

  • Most victims are in their 80s, living alone and in need of some help with health care or home maintenance.

  • Most scammers were men in their 30s, 40s or 50s.

One of the best defenses for the elderly are trustworthy loved ones who keep in touch with them regularly and monitor their well-being for signs of danger.

Common Scams

How do trusting, unsuspecting elderly folks get robbed of their hard-earned dollars? The MetLife study notes that financial elder abuse falls into three categories:

  • occasion crimes, which happen when someone is in the wrong place at the wrong time, often showing some signs of vulnerability, such as a cane or a handicapped-parking tag.

  • desperation crimes, which are are generally committed by relatives or friends who are "so desperate for money that they will do whatever it takes to get it."

  • predation crimes, which involve someone starting a social or professional relationship and building up trust with the intent to later exploit it.

Interestingly, only half of such crimes are committed by strangers. Family, friends and neighbors commit a full one-third of them (34%), and exploitation by businesses makes up 12%. Between 2008 and 2010, robberies and "scams perpetrated by strangers" jumped from 9% to 28%.

But there are also some subtler, more common ways that the elderly fall victim to financial crimes.

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Many times, a stranger or a loved one will prey upon an older person's fears or emotions. Older people are often worried about not having enough money or about their children's or grandchildren's welfare. Thus, they are can be a little too ready to believe a pitch about a sure-thing investment.

Sometimes, seniors end up allowing someone they've come to trust to start managing their money for them. This person can be a supposed professional who collects huge fees or commissions while making dubious investments. Or it can be a relative or new friend who offers to pay bills and run errands, while making extra withdrawals from bank accounts, forging checks or stealing credit cards.

Another common disaster involves hiring someone who appears out of the blue to make home repairs that never get completed. Elderly folks also can fall for false charities when a manipulative criminal tugs their heartstrings.

Don't assume that such things will not happen in your family. They happen to the rich and the poor, the famous and the obscure. Testifying in a Senate hearing on elder abuse, actor Mickey Rooney recently accused his stepson of financial, physical and emotional abuse.

Warning Signs

It can sometimes be hard to discover abuse, especially when an elderly person is reluctant to report a family member -- or simply embarrassed at having been swindled. According to the National Elder Abuse Incidence Study, around 84% of incidents may not be reported to authorities.

So keep an eye out for signs of possible trouble.

  • Physical signs include bruises, restraint marks on wrists, or evidence of over- or under-medication.

  • Emotional abuse signs include dementia-like behavior, such as rocking or talking to oneself, or withdrawal and a reduction in communication.

  • Financial danger signs range from suspicious changes in legal documents, such as wills and powers of attorneys; odd withdrawals on bank statements; and bills piling up. (Note that some of these signs may simply reflect an older person's decreasing ability to take care of themselves or their finances.)

Be wary of any caregivers who won't leave you alone with your loved one, who exhibit controlling or belittling behavior or who show extreme interest in the older person's financial affairs. You should also get suspicious if your elderly loved one suddenly has a new best friend helping him or her. Some truly are new friends, while others are predators setting up their crimes.

As Mickey Rooney told Congress, "Elder abuse comes in many different forms.... Each one is devastating in its own right. I know because it happened to me. My money was taken and misused. When I asked for information, I was told that I couldn't have any of my own information. ... I was literally left powerless." Don't let that happen to yourself or the ones you love.

Learn more:
National Center on Elder Abuse
Department of Health and Human Services' Administration on Aging
National Committee for the Prevention of Elder Abuse

Longtime Motley Fool contributor
Selena Maranjian holds no position in any company mentioned. Click here to see her holdings and a short bio.