If your elderly parents or grandparents are getting called by the government, be skeptical of the source. Experts say they’ve seen a rise in the number of scammers purporting to be from government agencies, and not just the typical phony calls from the Internal Revenue Service. Here's what to watch out for.
The County Clerk Scam Call
Using tools that mimic local numbers, scammers will call and say they’re from the local country clerk’s office, often citing specific court cases, and claim they’ve been attempting to contact you and now you are being fined. Another popular line is that you’ve missed jury duty and now face consequences, says Elizabeth Loewy, a former prosecutor and co-founder of EverSafe.
Officials in places such as Jacksonville, Fla. and Cleveland, Ohio have recently warned consumers about these fake calls, saying scammers claim they have a warrant out for arrest and ask you for an immediate payment on a credit card in order to stay out of jail. Sometimes, these scammers will ask you to pay the "fine" by purchasing reloadable debit cards or gift cards.
"Elder financial abuse is a multibillion dollar industry here in the U.S.," Loewy says.
The Unpaid Parking Ticket Scam
Another popular phone scam on the rise involves scammers pretending to be from the local sheriff’s office, claiming you have unpaid parking tickets that you need to pay now, says Kezeli Wold, associate commissioner for Adult Protective Services at the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services.
Again, this is a way for scammers to scare people into giving up their credit card information—or to have you purchase prepaid debit cards. Generally, the sheriff's offices around the country do not operate this way and you should be automatically suspicious if you get this kind of call.
“The truth is we’re all vulnerable and we can all be victimized—but that vulnerability increases as we age,” Wold says, adding that the targeting by scammers increases as we age.
The Rise of Scams, the Rise of Denial
It’s estimated that one in five Americans over the age of 65 are victims of financial abuse—and the average loss is a staggering $120,300. Financial abuse can the the form of a scam, or it can also be perpetrated by family or friends who syphon off money from older loved ones. Nearly half of older Americans surveyed recently by Wells Fargo reported they know someone who had been a victim of a scam.
And yet despite the prevalence of these scams and financial fraud cases, seniors are in denial around their vulnerability. Only 1 in 10 older Americans said they felt susceptible to a scam, according to a recent Wells Fargo survey of more than 1,500 seniors and their adult children.
That perceived invincibility leads many to put off having the necessary conversations with family and friends around protecting one's money or how to manage finances in the future.
Roughly 40% of seniors said in Wells Fargo's report they have the recommended key legal documents in place: a will, advanced healthcare directive, power of attorney for healthcare and financial matters. And often, adult children are kept in the dark even if their parents have taken the right steps. A third surveyed said they had no idea whether their elderly parents had any financial protections in place.
But while often awkward, having those conversations with your elderly parent or grandparent can be crucial to protecting them from scams and navigating any fallout if the worst should occur. “A majority of the cases could be avoided if families were communicating—if people were talking to their children and if children were talking to their parents,” Wold says.
But how do you start?
“Don’t make it about getting older,” Loewy recommends. Instead, these conversations can really just be started in casual settings, like brunch. A good starter: “I’ve been thinking about all the breaches out there, and all the scams out there, can we please trade information?”
Offering to trade information is key, she adds, saying it can help to couch the conversation around helping each other out: "I want you to know where my bank accounts are in case if I get hit by a car."
It also may help to bring up the topic around holidays, when the whole family is together, says Ron Long, Wells Fargo’s director of regulatory affairs and elder client initiatives.
“You will have to deal with the discomfort now, or you will end up dealing with the consequences later,” Wold says. Those consequences are not just financial—research from the University of Texas shows there’s a link between elder fraud and health issues, including depression and decline.