May 25, 2017. A phone rings in the middle of the day. An 800 number. The elderly woman is pretty sure she does not know the caller, but it cannot hurt to pick it up to make sure. Can it? Sure enough, an unfamiliar voice tells her that there is a problem with a computer, and she must do exactly what he says in order to fix it. He is insistent, with a great sense of urgency. He does not let her get a word in. The woman listens intently for a few moments, before politely telling him she does not own a computer. He curses at her and hangs up.
It is a half-truth. She does not have a computer, she has a laptop. But she also knows that the man’s intentions are far from honorable. This brave woman is my grandmother, and she watches enough crime shows and late night news to know there are plenty of unsavory characters out there who are waiting at a chance to abuse people who are too trusting. There are predators who pretend computers are at risk for hacking. Who convince the unsuspecting that out of state grandchildren are locked up in jail, and need bail wired to make it home. Who convince your law-abiding and trusting elderly neighbor that he made an error on tax forms, and must call the IRS back immediately or the police will come to his home to arrest him.
The truth is, if there is something wrong with the tax forms, the IRS will never directly call to threaten you. That is not and never will be their policy. The same theory applies to cybersecurity for the elderly. If this happens to you, where an unknown caller pretends to have intimate knowledge of your computer’s safety, hang up the phone. Encourage the elderly around you to do the same. If a stranger calls, claiming they have a family member who needs money wired to them, check the facts. Ask, oh you mean my grandson Will? (Insert for Will the name of someone who is not your family member.) That way if the caller agrees, they know something is not right. Even if they get it right, call your local police to verify the legitimacy of the claim. Chances are it is a scam.
Only 1 in 25 cases of Elder Financial Abuse are estimated to be reported. Yet in America there are over 2 million elders victimized every day. Elder Abuse is not just the behavior of a nameless, faceless person on the other line of the telephone. Nor, contrary to popular belief, is it a private, family matter you should not get involved in. Financial abuse can be committed by family members who exploit the power of attorney granted to them to take money without asking, or who take an ATM card and withdraw money without permission.
It is a sad state of affairs if our elderly community cannot feel safe in the comfort of their own home. Not everyone would be as quick to recognize potential scammers like my grandmother can. We owe it to the people we love—aging mothers, fathers, and grandparents to stay informed and vigilant against Elder Financial Abuse.Luckily, there is a growing acknowledgement of this form of financial abuse. The Older Americans Act was signed into law by President Obama on March 23, 2010. This act provides additional assistance, safe havens, and support to elders who are at risk. It funded special programs to support the communities where financial abuse flies under the radar, like rural, minority, and Native American seniors. The Older Americans Act also paved the way to improve the ease of access to information on abuse, neglect, and exploitation, as well as funded research on potential preventive measures.
Whether that comes in the form of a seemingly harmless phone call, or out in public, it is not something you should ignore. It is not somebody else’s business. Make it your business to ensure the people around you are not being taken advantage of. Stay informed, and report it when you notice suspicious activity.