“Grandpa, I am in jail in Canada and need $3,000, for bail. No, don’t call my parents, I am embarrassed by this. Yes? You will help? OK, go to Western Union and do a money transfer to…” The next day the grandson called again for more money to pay more fines. Grandpa got caught in a scam, not because he had dementia or was naively gullible, but because these scam artists are really that good. They are very believable and are able to connect with “Grandpa” on a very strong emotional level. And statistics from the Federal Trade Commission reports that if you have been duped by one scam, there is a greater likelihood that you will be a victim again of another scam.
Older people tend to be the target of these scams primarily because there is an assumption by the con artists that they have a nest egg or own a home with lots of equity in it. And older people were raised to be very polite, courteous and trusting, and more likely to be at home when they call. And they very often do not report when they have been scammed because they are extremely ashamed at having been conned. They also are in fear of losing their independence, and if it got out that they fell for a scam, what might the family think or do?
Also, there are scams out there that don’t seem out of the ordinary, like people coming to an older house offering a new roof or trim the trees, clean the gutters, etc. Most older people will answer the door when someone knocks or answer the phone when it rings, and even though they did not solicit this help, are polite and listen to the spiel from the person. Now, not all are scams — some are just door-to-door marketing, but is it the best price for the service?
The hard part about all of this is convincing your older relatives or neighbors that they do not need to entertain all queries that come their way. Or give out personal information just because someone asks for it. I have encouraged clients not to respond immediately or ask why someone needs their social security number or bank account when they are solicited, but to get information from the caller so that they can think about it and 'call them back.' Any legitimate business that is soliciting in your neighborhood should have a flyer or business card so that the older person can call them later. The trick is to do that with every solicitor and get into a habit, and not make decisions quickly.
For the calls that “Grandpa” got from his "grandson," the AARP Fraud Fighter Call Center would encourage him to hang up and then immediately call his son/daughter to see how his “grandson” is doing — even if the "grandson" asks him not to. Being in jail and needing bail money becomes a family affair.
But despite these ideas, it is usually very hard to convince someone who really believes there are no “bad people.” And many older adults do not want to be paranoid of everyone who comes into contact with them. I encourage my clients still to be who they are — “trusting, polite,” but to be more cautious and get information and think about it or ask friends/family what they think.
To learn more, go to the Washington state attorney general’s website at www.atg.wa.gov/ProtectingSeniors.aspx or call AARP Fraud Fighters Call Center (Seattle): 1-800-646-2283.
Betsy Zuber is the geriatric specialist for Mercer Island Youth and Family Services, a department of the City of Mercer Island. She provides social services to anyone who lives on Mercer Island 55+ and their families. You can reach her at (206) 275-7752 or firstname.lastname@example.org.