Dear Savvy Senior: Can you offer some tips on protecting seniors from financial scams? My neighbor's elderly mother was recently swindled out of $10,000 and I want to make sure my own mother is protected. - Troubled Daughter
Dear Troubled: Financial scams that target the elderly continue to be a big problem in the U.S. In fact, it's estimated some 5 million Americans older than age 60 are scammed out of roughly 3 billion every year. Here are some tips that can help you spot a scam, and what you can do to protect your mom.
Spotting a scam or a con artist is not always easy to do. They range from shady financial advisers to slick-talking telemarketers to professional caregivers and relatives who steal from the very people they're supposed to be looking after.
The most common scams targeting seniors today come in the form of free-lunch seminars selling dubious financial products, tricky/high-pressure telemarketing calls, and endless junk mail peddling free vacation packages, sweepstakes, phony charity fundraisers and more. And, of course, there's the ongoing problem of identity theft, Medicare fraud, door-to-door scams, credit card theft, and Internet and email scams.
The best way to spot a scam is to help your mom manage her finances, or at least monitor her accounts. Reviewing her financial statements each month can alert you to questionable checks, credit card charges or large withdrawals.
If, however, she doesn't want you looking at her financial records, there are other clues. For example: Is she getting a lot of junk mail for contests, free trips and sweepstakes? Is she receiving calls from strangers offering awards or moneymaking deals? Also notice if her spending habits have changed, if she has complained about being short of money lately, or has suddenly become secretive or defensive about her finances. All these may be signs of trouble.
Protect your parent
The most effective way to help protect your mom is to alert her to the different kind of scams out there. The easiest way to do this is by visiting the Financial Fraud Enforcement Task Force website (stopfraud.gov - click on "Protect Yourself"), where you can get a rundown on the different types of scams making the rounds these days. The Better Business Bureau Scam Stopper site at bbb.org/scam-stopper is another good resource.
If your mom doesn't have access to a computer, print out the materials yourself and use them to start a conversation.
It's also a good idea to keep close tabs on your mom's social circle. Has she acquired any questionable new friends lately, or is she seeing anyone who's giving her advice, financial or otherwise?
Some other tips to protect her include reminding her to never give out her Social Security number or financial information unless she initiated the contact and knows the institution.
Also, see if your mom would be willing to let you sort her mail before she opens it so you can weed out the junk. To reduce the junk mail and/or email she gets, use the Direct Marketing Association consumer opt-out service at dmachoice.org. And to stop credit card and insurance offers, use the Consumer Credit Reporting Industry opt-out service at optoutprescreen.com or call 888-567-8688 – they will ask for your mom's Social Security number and date of birth.
Also, register your mom's home and cellphone numbers on the National Do Not Call Registry (donotcall.gov, 888-382-1222) to reduce telemarketers. And help her get a free copy of her credit report at annualcreditreport.com to make sure she isn't a victim of identity theft.
If you suspect your mom has gotten scammed report it to your state securities regulator's office (see nasaa.org for contact information), or your state's Adult Protective Services agency (call 800-677-1116 for contact information) that investigates reports of elderly financial abuse.
Jim Miller is a contributor to the NBC "Today" show and author of "The Savvy Senior" book. Send your senior questions to: Savvy Senior, P.O. Box 5443, Norman, OK 73070, or visit SavvySenior.org