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Senior Con Games

Senior scams can cost older adults everything from their life savings, to their homes, even their lives.

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Stakes are High When Criminals Target Older Adults

The way the games are played may change over time, but the practice of defrauding consumers is nothing new. When the target is a senior, however, the stakes have never been higher, according to senior care experts such as the Home Instead® network. Senior scams can cost older adults everything from their life savings, to their homes, even their lives.

Investment fraud, lottery and sweepstakes scams, home improvement schemes seniors often are sitting ducks for criminals looking to make fast cash. According to the National Fraud Information Center, 22 percent of all telemarketing scam complaints made in 2005 were lodged by those over age 70, the highest percentage for any demographic group that year.

What makes elderly adults so vulnerable to these threats? Physical and psychological needs appear to be at the heart of the issue. "Seniors often worry they will outlive their money and find themselves unable to continue living the lifestyle they're used to," said Jeff Huber, President and Chief Operating Officer (COO) of the Home Instead network. "It's one of the concerns we hear seniors express most often, and one of the biggest reasons that they are so susceptible to these scams. Some may get caught up in events like this looking for ways to improve their financial situations."

Research confirms that criminals cater to these types of worries. Off the Hook Again: Understanding Why the Elderly Are Victimized by Economic Fraud Crimes, a report prepared by the Consumer Fraud Research Group for WISE Senior Services and the NASD (National Association of Securities Dealers) Investor Education Foundation, revealed that fraud pitches are tailored to meet the psychological needs of potential elderly victims.

For example, audiotapes of pitches showed that the con criminal uses one kind of appeal for the lottery fraud victim, one that preys on the fact that someone is a widow and feels deprived in life, according to the report.

Conversely, these criminals will then use a different pitch for, say, investment-fraud victims, who are more likely to be male, self-reliant and knowledgeable about finances.

Here's how it can work in real-life. In a large East Coast metropolitan area, an auto dealership sold an overpriced new car to an elderly couple, one of whom no longer drives and the other of whom has dementia.

This remarkable scenario began unfolding when the woman, who is in her 80s and who was unhappy that her driver's license had been suspended after three accidents, spotted an intriguing promotional ad from this dealership. She called the establishment and a sales representative arranged for her and her 92-year-old husband to be transported to the lot, where they were sold a car for $5,000 above the sticker price. Because the woman's hands were shaking, the dealership wrote the check for her.

Fortunately, however, the family had hired a Home Instead CAREGiversSM to help care out for these two elderly individuals. When that CAREGiver saw the couple bring home their new car, the CAREGiver contacted the seniors' family members immediately. Home Instead subsequently worked with the couple's relatives to force the car dealership to take back the car and reimburse the elderly couple their money.

"Sadly, older adults and their families must constantly be on guard for cons like this, and many others," Huber said. "Families of seniors who live in other cities will often call upon our CAREGivers, all of whom are screened, trained, bonded and insured, to serve as second sets of eyes to help protect their loved ones."

Because scammers often target the elderly who are alone or appear lonely, just knowing that an elderly person has someone to look out for him or her can be an important deterrent to this type of crime, thus helping to avoid potentially devastating consequences for the victims.

"If a con criminal can call seniors and get them to give up their Social Security number, they can create any type of transaction," said Edward Hutchison, program director of the National Association of Triads, Inc, which is part of the National Sheriff's Association.

This national organization has generated some 900 state triads, which have created SALT (Seniors and Law Enforcement Together) Councils in their communities. These local chapters, designed to bring together senior services volunteers, law enforcement and the community, have 17,000 volunteers who go into senior homes and organizations to talk about safety.

The organization, whose mission is overall senior safety, now devotes most of its time to these types of issues. "Within the last three years, we've focused predominately on senior fraud, scams and elder abuse," Hutchison said.

Hutchison said that they've seen individuals take out mortgages on an elderly person's home, file quitclaim deeds on their properties, and move to eject elderly from their home. They've even seen criminals successfully open joint checking accounts with unsuspecting elderly.

What's worse is that now the elderly can end up with their name on "sucker's lists" which enable these types of criminals to continue victimizing them. Events like these can lead to legal issues that may even end up outliving the senior victims. For instance, one Journal of the American Medical Association study showed that victims of elder mistreatment, including exploitation, have a three times higher mortality rate than nonvictims.1

When con criminals infiltrate, tragedy can result for a senior who is often just looking out for the best interests of his or her family. And that consequence can be the biggest crime of all. "Most seniors just want to leave a legacy to their children and grandchildren," Hutchison said. "Criminals prevent some from doing just that."

1. "The Mortality of Elder Mistreatment," by Mark S. Lachs, MD, MPH; Christianna S.
Williams, MA; Shelley O'Brien, MS; Karl A. Pillemer, PhD; Mary E. Charlson, MD;
JAMA. 1998; 280:428-432.

Last revised: April 4, 2011

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