Financial scams that target seniors are a growing problem. An encounter with a financial scam artist can put an entire lifetime of work, savings and a good name at risk. Learning to recognize some of the most common financial scams can help you protect yourself or an elderly loved one becoming a victim. These financial scams can take many forms, but some of the most widespread abuses include identity theft, predatory lending, and telemarketing fraud.
Scam artists have adapted to modern technology and are able to obtain enough information about an elderly person to build trust via telephone, mail, or email. According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, seniors are at an increased risk of becoming a scam victim due to their polite and trusting manner (typical of the generation born in the 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s), their upbringing, their lack of knowledge pertaining to the internet (and the potential risk of information it poses), and their susceptibility to products promising increased cognitive function, virility, physical conditioning, anti-cancer properties, and so on. In a country where new cures and vaccinations for old diseases have given every American hope for a long and fruitful life, it is not so unbelievable that the con artists’ products can do what they claim.
Identity theft occurs when someone uses your personal information, such as your name, social security number, or credit card number, without your permission. Identity thieves obtain your information by taking mail from your mailbox, going through your trash for discarded receipts and bills, by asking for it over the phone on some pretext, or by phishing. Phishing is an Internet tactic where identity thieves send spam or pop-up messages in order to obtain your personal information. Your information is then used to access your bank accounts, run up credit card charges or apply for a loan in your name.
These messages often appear to be from a legitimate business, bank, or even a government agency. You should never respond to unsolicited emails or pop-up messages that ask for your personal information. Seniors should regularly review credit card, banking, and other financial statements to ensure they are correct and may also want to consider using direct deposit for Social Security and other payments to prevent mail fraud.
Predatory lending, also known as loan fraud, involves a wide range of abusive practices used to take advantage of seniors who are in the market to refinance their homes. Predatory lenders target seniors who are in need of money to consolidate debts or meet emergency expenses. Some common predatory lending practices are charging excessive fees, including a prepayment penalty for paying off the loan early, or refinancing a loan to generate a fee without providing any real benefit to the borrower. Comparison shopping, taking time to understand the terms of the loan, and seeking the advice of a relative or trusted friend are all steps seniors can take to be smart consumers when in the market for a loan.
Billions of dollars are lost each year due to fraudulent telemarketers. These calls often take the form of charity, prize, or sweepstakes scams and often target seniors. If you are approached by an unfamiliar charity, ask for written information to be sent to you. Legitimate charities will be happy to provide details about their work and will never insist that you act immediately. Also be aware that scam artists try to trick people by using fake names that are very similar to legitimate, well-known charities. Under Louisiana law, charitable organizations that use a professional solicitor to help receive donations and professional solicitors who solicit on behalf of charitable organizations are required to register annually with the Louisiana Attorney General’s Office.
You can learn more about a particular charity or about smart giving generally by visiting their website at http://ag.louisiana.gov. If it is a national charity, you should also be able to gain additional information on the Better Business Bureau Wise Giving Alliance website at www.bbb.org/us/charity/.
Seniors should be cautious if they receive a telemarketing call offering a prize or an opportunity to enter a sweepstakes. Again, it is a good idea to get the details sent to you in writing. You should never be required to pay for a prize or be asked to send a payment to cover taxes on a prize you have won. You should never be required to buy something or pay a fee in order to enter any contest or claim any prize. Guard your credit card and bank account numbers when asked to participate in a sweepstakes; this information should not be required for you to participate.
There has been a recent influx in fraudulent calls made during tax season. These calls are made my scammers claiming to be IRS Officials and often request personal and financial information using scare tactics. Some of these calls even go so far as to bully the taxpayer into paying, threatening arrest, deport, or even revoke their license if money is not received. The IRS stresses that they will never call and ask for important information over the phone, and encourage people to spread the word about IRS fraud to prevent elderly susceptibility.
When called by any type of telemarketer, you should ask for the company’s name and address and ask the caller to send you written materials to study before you make any purchase. You should never be pressured into making an immediate decision. You should also get advice from someone that you trust before you send any money or provide your bank account, credit card, or social security numbers to solicitors.
If you feel you or a senior you know has been the victim of elderly fraud, you should contact the Consumer Protection Section of the Louisiana Attorney General’s Office at 1-800-351-4889.
Ms. Melancon has engaged in the practice of law in Ascension Parish for the last ten years. The primary focus of her practice is estate planning, probate and elder law. For more information or to attend an upcoming estate planning seminar, call her office at 744-0027.