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Scams against senior citizens fraud

Scams Against Seniors

OVER LUNCH LAST week, two of my female colleagues told the same story, each with a different twist. Both women have mothers in their 70s who received unexpected calls from their grandchildren asking for money.

Tammy’s mother, Geraldine, received a call that went like this:

“Hi, Grandma.”

To which Geraldine responded: “Hi Todd.” (She only has one grandson, so it must be Todd calling.)

Todd then told Geraldine he had gone to Mexico with his buddies for the weekend, got drunk, behaved badly and was arrested. He continued, adding he didn’t want to upset or alarm his mother (who would—of course—be very angry as well), so could Grandma please wire $3,000 to make bail?

Worried, and wanting to take care of her foolish grandson, Geraldine wrote down all of the instructions but told Todd her bank account information was locked in the desk drawer so she would have to do the transaction after she hung up.

Geraldine avoided disaster — barely.

Mostly believing the call, but having a twinge of doubt, Geraldine called her granddaughter to see if she had spoken to her brother recently. To Geraldine’s surprise, her granddaughter insisted Todd was on his way to his biology class.

Geraldine shook her head. “You just spoke to him today? Just a few minutes ago? You are sure he’s not in Mexico?”

Disaster averted. Barely.

When asked about the caller’s voice, Geraldine admitted that her hearing really isn’t what it used to be. While the caller sounded a little different, she attributed it to Todd’s anxiety about being arrested. It was only after being specifically questioned that she realized she told the caller Todd’s name. He had only referred to her as “Grandma.”

Shaken, Geraldine called the police. The officers made a home visit and expressed grave concern. Nevertheless—and not surprisingly—the thief was never located nor prosecuted.

Some senior scams succeed, and they’re devastating.

My other friend’s mother, Bonnie, was not so lucky. She, too, received a call from her “grandson” seeking money. Bonnie’s alleged grandson called on a weekend, sounding happy and calm. He told Bonnie he prepared a big party for her upcoming birthday and asked for a list of all of the people in her community whom she wanted him to invite.

He told her that he had booked a party room in a local hotel for the night. All of their friends and family members from the “coast” would be coming to celebrate. When she asked which hotel, he said the details were a secret, but she was going to be very surprised!

That’s one way to put it.

Like Geraldine, Bonnie felt that something about her “grandson’s” demeanor seemed off. Nevertheless, in the excitement of a party in her honor, when he asked her if she could contribute $500 to the party, since it had gotten a little more expensive than he had anticipated, she immediately agreed and provided him with her debit card information.

That morning Bonnie had $13,576 in her account. A week later, when a check bounced, she learned her account was virtually wiped out.

Scams against seniors are, sadly, too common.

Although the depleted account did not represent all of Bonnie’s savings, in many cases a financial fraud can bankrupt a senior and leave the victim destitute, with little ability to recover his or her losses.

Sadly, scams of the elderly are a frequent occurrence. There are numerous contributing factors that make this population vulnerable. As people age, they often lose some cognitive functioning, as well as their loss of hearing and other functions. These factors impede their ability to decipher and resist fraud. Seniors are also targeted because they may have a lifetime’s worth of savings available in their accounts.

Often times, seniors are opposed to giving up their independence and/or involving their adult children in their very private finances.

That’s understandable—and sometimes warranted. We want to respect our parents and grandparents. We do also want to protect them.

How to protect yourself and your parent/grandparent:

Discuss these issues with the senior adults in your life. Telling them about Geraldine and Bonnie is a good (non-threatening) place to start. No one wants to be duped or lose their money, so it is essential that everyone know that fraud occurs and that the elderly population is a frequent target for financial scams.

Other frequent scams involve the “winning” of a large prize. In these, the recipient/victim is advised that he or she first has to pay the taxes, or some similar payment, to trigger the big pay off. Once the financial information is provided, the scammer is the only prize winner.

Remember the old adage, “If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.”

Senior citizens, as a group, are also comfortable making phone purchases. They must be made aware of the dangers of telemarketing/phone fraud.

Essential fraud tips: 4 things to do and 4 things to avoid

Get the conversation started. Talk to your elderly loved ones and point out these valuable tips, which just may save them the trouble and heartache of being victimized:

  • Do add your name to the Do Not Call Registry.
  • Do always ask for documentation and terms in writing. If they cannot mail, email or fax you the terms, hang up.
  • Do ask for specific cancellation and refund terms. Again, ask to see this in writing.
  • Do ask for, and write down, the name of the person with whom you are speaking. Also get their mailing address, phone number and business license number, if applicable.
  • Do NOT rush to buy. If the product has to be purchased today to get the best deal, that’s a flashing neon sign that says hang up the phone.
  • Do NOT provide any account information over the phone unless it is a fully vetted, trusted source. If they called soliciting you, you ask to call them back on an official phone line.
  • Do NOT be pressured into making decisions, purchases, signing documents or committing your funds.
  • Do NOT buy from telemarketers who represent companies with which you are not familiar.

What to do if you think you or your loved one was scammed?

If you think you or an elder friend or relative has been scammed:

(i) call the police and file a report, and

(ii) call the bank and close accounts immediately.

Timing matters—depending on the scam and the laws in your state—and each day counts. The sooner you report the theft, the more likely you are to stem the financial damage.

Other resources to contact for assistance include the Eldercare Locator (a public service of the U.S. Administration on Aging) at 1.800.677.1116 and/or the National Adult Protective Services Association at

Protect your elders by communicating about the dangers of these potential scams and actions to minimize the likelihood that they will be exploited. Talk, talk, talk. And then, talk some more.

“By the time you’re eighty years old you’ve learned everything. You only have to remember it.”

George Burns (1896-1996)




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About Michelle Gershfeld

I’m a debt settlement and bankruptcy attorney who negotiates resolutions between clients and their creditors. I am also a real estate attorney involved in both sides of purchasing and selling distressed real property. I am passionate about teaching people about money and helping individuals of all ages achieve financial independence and success in a "no…

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