It often starts with a phone call. “Hello, Grandma? This is your grandson.” The caller then goes on to tell Grandma that he’s in some trouble and needs her help, usually money to get out of jail or the hospital. The caller tells Grandma how to send the cash, or buy gift cards, or some other ruse. Grandma believes her “grandson,” sends the money, and only later learns it’s a vicious scam, and her retirement savings are gone.
Or the phone caller offers a great investment opportunity, again for cash or gift cards or, in a recent Mason District case, transferring large amounts of money from a legitimate financial institution to an unknown destination. When the financial institution called the account holder to verify the transaction, she acknowledged that she had authorized the transfer. Sadly, it was another scam, and she lost most of her life savings.
These are real, local, examples of elder financial abuse, which affects the health and security of millions of senior citizens across the nation, but they are not the only types of scams that might affect you. Phone calls about problems with your computer are rampant. If you didn’t initiate the call, hang up. Never give personal information (birth dates, Social Security numbers, account numbers, or even your address) to anyone who calls you on the telephone. Always protect your personal information, and that of your family members. And you never should rush into a financial decision, no matter how much pressure may be exerted by outsiders.
The National Council on Aging estimates that older Americans lose nearly $3 billion a year to financial exploitation and scams. The senior population is growing, as people live longer, and are wealthier, than in the past. The Senior Safe Act became law on May 24, 2018, and it allows bank and credit union employees to report suspected cases of elder financial abuse to police and adult protective services. The law also protects financial institutions from liability and from violations of privacy laws when they report cases involving their customers.
Some easy tips to protect yourself are offered by financial institutions. Regularly monitor your accounts for suspicious activity. If you can’t identify a charge or a withdrawal, even a small one, on your statement, call the card issuer or financial institution for clarification. Scammers sometimes test your security via a small amount; if that succeeds, they go after a much larger amount. Consider giving a trusted relative or friend access to monitor transactions; not to authorize transactions, but to provide a second set of eyes and ears for you. Consider creating a Power of Attorney (POA) or other advance plan to protect your financial decision-making.
Local, state, and federal governments have services and agencies that can help. If you are the victim of a scam, promptly report it to the police. Many police departments, including Fairfax County, have officers who specialize in investigating financial crimes. Fairfax County’s Silver Shield campaign (www.fairfaxcounty.gov/SilverShield), the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (www.consumerfinance.gov), Federal Trade Commission Identity Theft Resource Center (www.identitytheft.gov), and the National Association of Senior Advocates (www.naosa.org) are sources of additional helpful information.
Don’t become a victim. Scammers may attack by phone, letter, e-mail, at your door, sometimes the credit card slot at the gas pump. Be alert, aware, and protective. It’s a good way to start the new year and the new decade.