I recently met “Sarah”, an 80-year-old widow and Holocaust survivor. She lived in the same town as one of her sons and had frequent interaction and visits from her family. Sara had taken a silver, Austrian candelabra which she inherited from her mother to a silversmith in her town for repair. The silversmith seemed like a nice person. Determined to maintain her independence, she did not mention to her family anything about the repair, nor did she mention that he was charging her thousands of dollars for it. After about a month of over $5000 of “repair” costs, Sarah finally divulged to her children that she suspected that she was a victim of a scam. The children confronted the silversmith but were not successful in getting back her money or the candelabra. Eventually, after filing a police report, the candelabra was returned, but the money was not.
Sarah’s family was outraged and distraught about a scam perpetrated on their mother. Even more alarming, was this was this first indication that their mother was not thinking as clearly as she had in the past.
As our parents get older, it is normal to see incremental age-related changes such as difficulty walking, loss of strength and stamina, lack of dexterity, and changes in reflexes, eyesight, and hearing. There can also be a decline in cognition that may manifest itself as not remembering names and dates, or forgetting appointments, details about events, and things from the past.
Why are seniors particularly vulnerable to consumer fraud? Because individuals with cognitive impairment or dementia:
- May not be as careful about checking their bills for mistakes.
- May not able to keep track of their bank accounts.
- Can be careless with their credit cards and social security/teudat zehut numbers.
- May not be mindful to protect their ATM machine passwords from prying eyes.
- May give out information to phone or online scammers.
- Unscrupulous business owners may take advantage of older adults (particularly if they see they are more vulnerable).
- Are more susceptible to identity theft.
Take the case of “Harry,” age 78, whose credit card was declined his local department store in NY. Harry’s children were alarmed when they found out, because Harry had always been meticulously attentive to bill paying. Upon investigation, they discovered that Harry’s other credit cards as well as his bank account were also compromised. It took about a year to resolve the issue. In the process, his children learned that Harry had not shared with them that his cards were not working, or that he was receiving strange calls from people in other countries requesting information related to his bank accounts and other personal data. He didn’t want to trouble his children, or worse, identify himself as vulnerable, potentially acquiescing control of his finances. Eventually, it was discovered that a teller at Harry’s bank was involved in an identity theft scheme targeting seniors.
Unfortunately, there is a growing industry of fraudsters who preys upon elderly adults, particularly those with cognitive impairment. Take steps to protect your elderly loved ones from consumer fraud by:
- Reminding them to never give out any personal information either on the computer or by phone (as those with cognitive impairment should not be making independent purchases.)
- Reviewing their credit card and banking statements on a regular basis.
- Offering to electronically pay their bills for them so that you can track their finances together as a team.
- Recommending to them not to order anything by phone or online without guidance from family.
- Helping them understand that a caregiver or housekeeper should not have access to personal and financial information.
- Ensure that they have a locked safe or file cabinet in their home to store secure financial information.
Jeanne Lankin, LCSW is a licensed clinical social worker in Israel and New Jersey. She recently made aliyah to Jerusalem where she has a private practice. A psychotherapist with over 30 years’ experience working with adults of all ages, Jeanne provides individual, couple, family and group psychotherapy assisting her clients through life transitions and challenges, and also works with seniors and their families dealing with illness, loss, bereavement, caregiving and familial conflict. Jeanne can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or via her website www.jeannelankintherapy.online