Last summer, Daniel Goldstein’s 86-year-old mother received an email that appeared to be from her bank. She became concerned because she hadn’t spent the money mentioned, so she called a helpline on the email. The person on the other end of the line asked for her bank account details and led her to believe that she would get her money back. Instead, she lost $600 to a scammer.
Last year, consumers of all ages were defrauded of $8.8 billion. And older adults lost the most money compared to other age groups, according to the Federal Trade Commission.
While everyone wants to protect their parents and grandparents from scammers, sometimes these conversations can be complicated to navigate.
“We encourage people to think in multigenerational strategies. Everyone gets scammed, it’s just another way scammers come after you,” said Genevieve Waterman of the National Council on Aging.
From having a lot of empathy to knowing how to report a scam, experts shared their recommendations for talking about scams:
Find out which scams commonly target seniors
Knowing which scams are most often used to target the elderly can help.
Two of the most common are “grandparent” scams and romance scams, says Kathy Stokes, director of fraud prevention at AARP.
The grandparent scam is when someone receives a phone call from a person pretending to be a grandchild asking for money to get them out of trouble. The first step to avoid this is to call other family members before taking any action, the FTC advises.
When it comes to romance scams, the FTC reported that people lost $1.3 billion in 2022. Scammers usually contact people through social media and then move the conversation to other messaging apps like WhatsApp or Google Chat.
“A lot of older adults now enter the online dating world, they do a lot of online conversations, have a lot of dates, but it leads them to scammers who then convince them to give them money and send them overseas,” Waterman said.
What begins as a simple conversation turns into a sudden romantic connection. But then the person asks for money because something happened in their life and they need help. According to the FTC, common lies from scammers include “I or someone close to me is sick, injured, or in jail” and “I can teach you how to invest.”
Other common scams are investment scams, tech support scams and identity theft scams. You can read more about these on the FTC’s website.
Have constant conversations about fraud
One of the best ways to raise awareness of scams is to talk to each other about them. To keep your older family members safe, Waterman recommends that families talk about fraud more often in their daily lives.
“I love the idea of sitting around the table and talking about (fraud) and making it more common,” Waterman said.
Goldstein said his mother knows how to use technology quite well and they have had many conversations about email scams. However, she had never encountered the kind of fraud she was subjected to during the summer.
Feeling a sense of urgency, she did not contact her son before calling the scammer. Goldstein believes that could have prevented her from losing money.
It’s a common practice for scammers to make victims feel like they need to act immediately, making them more vulnerable to falling for a story that might not seem plausible if they weren’t under pressure. If you are having a conversation about cheating with your family members, it is important to highlight the hasty aspect of cheating practices.
Inform, don’t impose
When navigating complex conversations, it’s better to take an informative approach rather than an authoritative tone. Since your parents or grandparents have a lot of expertise in other life topics, if you approach a conversation by imposing your ideas, it may not have the best effect.
When Stokes has conversations with her mother about fraud, she approaches the conversation by saying she’s heard about a new type of fraud and asks questions like, “What do you think about this?” instead of using language like “Hey mom, it’s this scam, don’t fall for it.”
Waterman also recommends having conversations as a family, including younger members of your family, and making sure you make it clear that scams target everyone regardless of age.
“It’s about being vigilant together as a family unit and not challenging the older adult but just explaining that (fraud) is becoming more sophisticated,” Waterman said.
If you’re looking for guides to avoiding scams for older adults, you can find a variety of them on the National Council on Aging’s website.
Be empathetic if they fall for a scam
If your family member has already lost money to a scam, Stokes recommends approaching the conversation with a lot of empathy.
“We tend to blame the victim,” Stokes said. “When you are confronted with another adult in your life who has experienced a scam loss, understand that it is a crime.”
Stokes encourages people to think of scammers as organized groups with lots of resources, rather than a random person calling from their mother’s basement. Stokes says people should think of these crimes on the same level as others and therefore have empathy for the victims.
Discuss a plan if they encounter an impostor
A few days after the scam took place, Goldstein’s mother told him about it.
“She was really unhappy and I’m like, ‘Mom, why didn’t you call me?'” said Goldstein, who felt frustrated by the situation.
Part of Goldstein’s frustration came from the fact that he had a system with his mother where she would call him if she ever felt something was wrong. But he also felt sorry for his mother because she was ashamed of being a victim.
While being online is now a part of most people’s lives, older adults have a harder time adapting to certain aspects of the Internet, which can make them more vulnerable, Waterman said.
“Older adults have been thrown into the virtual world during covid without any digital skills training or navigation in general,” Waterman said.
To combat anxiety and provide information about fraud, AARP has a Fraud Watch Network helpline. This helpline provides guidance to people worried about being scammed or emotional support to those who have experienced fraud.
If you or a family member has been the victim of a scam, it’s a good idea to report it. You can report a scam on the FTC’s website.
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