Elder Law

How To Protect Your Family From Senior Scams

By Alan Kopit, Attorney

Each year, millions of seniors are conned out of their savings, whether it's through the internet, mail, phone or someone they know personally. Alan Kopit, legal editor of lawyers.com, shares some tips on how to stop older family members from getting scammed.

Fraud comes in many forms - unscrupulous charitable solicitations, telemarketers trying to sell you something, and get-rich-quick schemes being pushed over the internet. How often has someone walked up to you on the street and given you $1,000? The answer is no doubt never, yet people are scammed everyday by people who intrude on their privacy in perhaps more subtle ways with promises of easy money. Seniors and their families need to pay particular attention to scams aimed at the elderly.

For example, one of the more prevalent scams today is the lottery scam. News stories have reported that seniors (the primary target of the scam) have lost thousands of dollars to lottery scams. One story went like this:

A senior, who is disabled with no means of financial support except her disability check, received a letter saying that she had won a European lottery and needed to send money to cover the taxes and processing fees. Of course, the senior had never even purchased a European lottery ticket! Nevertheless, after receiving the letter, the senior sent the lottery the requested amount, about $3,500. Naturally, the big lottery payoff never arrived, and the victim will never be able to recover the money.

Seniors are the most likely targets

Targeting seniors is not a new phenomenon. For decades, con artists have used the telephone, the mail and gone door-to-door to scam seniors out of their hard earned savings. Today, technology has brought about new forms of solicitation.

Seniors are particularly vulnerable for several reasons:

  • First, they have time. Generally senior citizens, especially if they are retired, have time on their hands. They read advertisements, they check out unsolicited e-mails, and they review direct mail pieces more readily than busier people, who often simply ignore them.
  • Second, they are often lonely. When someone calls or a senior receives an e-mail, the feeling of loneliness will often be relieved by the fact that a seemingly sympathetic ear is on the other end of the line or is corresponding by e-mail. Often scam artists will talk for hours before securing a senior's confidence (the "con" in con artist) and trust.
  • Finally, they tend to be trusting and compassionate. According to the AARP, Americans 65 and older receive more telephone and mail solicitations than any other age group.

Tips on how to protect your family from scams

Remember the #1 rule of consumer law: if it sounds too good to be true, it usually is. If you are scammed, your chances of getting any of your money back are slim. Accordingly, the only real way to protect yourself is to not get defrauded in the first place. Family can play a role in this process. Here are some tips that will help:

  • Look at lifestyle changes. If you see a lifestyle change that's out of the ordinary, you need to ask why and what's happening here. For example, if all of a sudden your outgoing grandparent becomes withdrawn and stops going to church or social functions, that's a sign something may be wrong. They're usually embarrassed or afraid to tell their family they have a problem, and this is very common. Their biggest fear is losing their independence. So they hesitate telling anyone they've been victimized because they do not want you to think they're incapable or vulnerable. They withdraw, rather than participate, and will not discuss the problem openly.
  • Review their financial statements. If your parent or grandparent decides to give you financial power of attorney, they're permitting you to utilize their bank accounts and pay for bills, monitor their credit card expenses, and other financial matters. An elderly person can request that the bank send duplicate statements to the family member who's looking after their finances. It's a good idea to have someone they trust review their financial statements on a regular basis, and look for any suspicious or unusual activities on their accounts.
  • Get it in writing. There are times when your elder family member may want to donate money to charity, or use their savings towards an investment. You need to be vigilant and find out what the charity or investment opportunity is, and get the information in writing. Take the time to review the fine print and see if it's legitimate. Always ask for written information from the source. Remember any legitimate business or charity knows that it's appropriate to ask for written information. Family members can help check out unfamiliar companies with your local consumer protection agency, Better Business Bureau, or State Attorney General's Office.
  • If you are a victim, act quickly. Contact your bank and close accounts that you think may be accessible by the fraudulent parties. File a police report with local authorities and be sure to get yourself a copy for your records. You may later be asked by credit card companies for a copy of the report to verify the crime. Contact the major credit bureaus and file a fraud alert with each of them. Fraud alerts can help prevent fraudulent parties from opening more accounts in your name.

Does the law give me any protection?

You do have legal rights that provide some protection, but the circumstances are limited. There are different laws that protect your legal rights depending on the type of fraud that has occurred. For example, the Electronics Fund Transaction Act provides consumers protection for transactions involving ATM and debit cards. You have 60 days from the date your bank account statement is sent to report in writing any money withdrawals from your account without your permission. If your ATM or debit card is lost or stolen, report it immediately because the amount you can be held responsible for depends on how quickly you report the loss:

  • If you report the loss or theft within two business days of discovery, your losses are limited to $50.
  • If you report the loss or theft after two business days, but within 60 days after the unauthorized electronic fund transfer appears on your statement, you could lose up to $500 of what the thief withdraws.
  • If you wait more than 60 days to report the loss or theft, you could lose all the money that was taken from your account after the end of the 60 days.
  • Note: VISA and MasterCard voluntarily have agreed to limit consumers' liability for unauthorized use of their debit cards in most instances to $50 per card, no matter how much time has elapsed since the discovery of the loss or theft of the card.

In addition, if the fraud involves checks and other "paper transactions, there may be some protection. Although no federal law limits your losses if someone uses forged checks or other types of paper transactions, state laws may protect you. Most states hold the bank responsible for losses from such transactions. But again, act quickly, because some rights expire after a certain amount of time. If you are unsure about your legal rights, you can always consult an attorney.

Help is available from the following sources:

Alan Kopit is an attorney and the legal editor for lawyers.com. He was featured on NBC's Weekend TODAY, Saturday, September 2nd. Alan's segment focused on scams facing senior citizens, tips on how not to become a victim as well as seniors knowing their legal rights. Lawyers.com provides consumers and small businesses access to a free database of more than 440,000 attorneys and law firms nationwide.

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