Scammers Like to Target the Elderly

I was visiting my mother at the retirement home and prominently displayed on the elevator was a sign warning the residents not to give out personal information on the phone to people claiming to be from the bank, credit card company, or the government.

I find it bizarre that the same old scams keep cropping up time and time again – but they do because they work.

Fraud is the number one crime against older Canadians – hitting as many as one in five seniors – according to bankrate.com.

Scam alert

People over the age of 65 are especially vulnerable to fraudulent schemes for a number of reasons:

  • They often live alone and are home most of the day to answer the phone and the door.
  • They have excellent credit, and often keep large sums of cash around the house.  My mother-in-law kept a pile of cash “hidden” under a place mat on her kitchen table.  My mother kept her “secret stash” in the linen closet
  • They are generally more trusting, and often lonely.  Con artists must gain the trust of the victim.  He or she will be friendly, helpful and appear to have the victim’s best interest at heart.  When you have a lonely person and somebody with a big friendly smile at the door, there’s a bit of a bond formed immediately. 

Here are some common scams to watch for:

      1.  They have won a prize

Henry received a phone call telling him he won a free trip and explaining all the exciting details.  The caller sounded official and told him he needed to pay a small fee in order to claim the prize.  Henry had a gut feeling this wasn’t quite on the up-and-up, but he didn’t want to miss out on an expensive trip if it was legitimate.

Typically, scammers tell victims they have won a prize or a substantial amount of money.  In order to receive their prize, they have to make some kind of payment – taxes, shipping, “recovery costs.”

Legitimate sweepstakes like Publishers Clearing House and Readers Digest don’t usually call the winner – they get a letter (or EdMacMahon comes to call).  They never require an initial payment or, especially, a bank or credit card number.

       2.  Grandparent scam

“Hi, Grandma.  It’s your favourite grandson.”  This scammer sounds in distress and desperate and claims to urgently need several thousands of dollars wired immediately – he’s in trouble with the law, needs bail money to get out of jail, or in an accident and has to pay for car repairs.  “And, please don’t tell Mom.”

These calls tend to come late in the evening and are particularly active in December and January  

       3.  CRA Impersonators

Here the victim gets a phone call apparently from the CRA claiming they owe back taxes and demanding payment to avoid an outstanding warrant or even deportation.

This scam takes advantage of peoples’ fear of the “tax man.”

Ask yourself why would the CRA be asking for payment through iTunes gift cards when they have you on file as a taxpayer

      4.   “Free meal” financial seminars

These seminars target seniors through mailings – and even their church or social club – and offer gourmet meals, expert advice and “risk free investment opportunities” with “guaranteed returns”.  The food and tips may be free but the people who are persuaded to buy these investments end up paying a big price with these unsuitable or risky investment products.

These types of financial scams are devastating to older adults.  It’s not just the wealthy that are targeted and it’s not always strangers who perpetrate them. 

Especially vulnerable are older widows who may not have had much experience in managing their finances.

     5.  Online dating scams

Following the death of her husband, Glenda was lonely and looking for friendship.  She signed up on the dating site Match.com.  Shortly after she was exchanging emails and phone calls with a man named Norman.  After several months he started asking for money. Glenda, who believed they were in a relationship and would soon marry, willingly agreed to wire him money which he promised to pay back.

If someone you’ve met online starts asking for money, it’s time to press the delete button and forget you ever met them

     6.  Dishonest bank teller scam

I can’t believe this one is still going strong.  The victim is told that a bank employee is stealing money from accounts and the investigator needs their help to capture him or her.  The victim is told to withdraw a large sum of money for “evidence” and hand it over to the scammer.

Here’s another variation. Shirley received a call from someone claiming to be an RCMP detective.  He told her that her bank accounts and credit cards had been hacked.  He persuaded her to provide financial passwords, give him remote access to her computer, and purchase $6,000 in iTunes and other gift cards.   

       7.  Drug mules

This is actually a new one for me.  Drug trafficking networks are drafting seniors to smuggle narcotics into the country according to Canada Border Services.  They are either somehow pressured into it, or it’s without their knowledge.

 They likely target older people because they appear harmless and don’t draw suspicion – who suspects an 80-year-old woman with a walker?

The bottom line

Older adults are particularly susceptible to financial scams, but the crimes often go unreported because they are embarrassed or don’t even realize they have been defrauded. Also, elderly victims may not report crimes because they may be concerned that their relatives will think they no longer have the capacity to handle their own affairs. Their trusting nature may be their biggest liability.

How do you talk to your parents without sounding like you’re their parent? You can use the direct approach.  I’m constantly warning my mother against giving out personal information to strangers and not leaving her bank book and money laying around in plain view.

I tell her not to worry about being impolite – just hang up or shut the door.

Those who don’t feel comfortable looking through their parents’ bank statements to see what cheques they are writing can be more subtle.

When you’re with your parents say something like, “I read an article about this happening to somebody,” or “I just got a phone call telling me I won a fabulous prize.  Do you ever get calls like that?”  Hopefully, the conversation can flow from there.

For more information about common scams visit the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre website.

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