May 25, 2012 -- Since May is Older Americans Month, I decided to write about a topic that's become a real issue in America. It makes me sad to say this, but unfortunately, we live in a world where senior citizens are often the target of financial fraud — elder abuse is a serious problem to watch out for.
This is addressed to the children and relatives of senior citizens, but it isn't meant to exclude senior citizens from the discussion. However, whether you take some of these steps on your own depends on the mental and physical state of your relative. You'll have to make the call, but if at all possible, it's important to have your relative participate in the policing of his or her finances. If that's not possible, then it's even more important that you take the initiative to protect your loved one.
According to the FBI, seniors are targeted because they often have nest eggs, they come from a generation that was more trusting, and they're often too proud to report the fraud. Another reason the elderly sometime hesitate to report they've been ripped off? They're concerned their relatives might see this as a sign of declining mental capacity and they don't want to lose their independence. Smart and unscrupulous thieves know all this, and try to exploit it.
There's so much advice on the Internet about what you need to do to protect your elderly relative against fraud. When you discover fraud, it can all be scary and quite confusing, so the FBI has come to the rescue with a comprehensive, yet easy-to-read, list detailing the different types of fraud and how to prevent them.
The scams range from funeral and cemetery fraud to fraudulent anti-aging products. I suggest checking out this site so you can be more aware of the scams your loved one could be exposed to. The FBI has another page describing all kinds of Internet fraud that you should check out. These scams range from investment fraud to the Nigerian Letter or "419" fraud.
One of the most common types of fraud against the elderly is stealing credit card information. The thief then goes on a spending spree and hopes no one, including the senior citizen, is looking out for this activity.
Here are a few simple steps you can take to make sure your loved one isn't the victim of credit card fraud:
Talk to your relative about email scams: You can't be around your relative constantly, so take the time to explain why you should never give out your credit card number to buy a product that's sold via email. These scams often promise a great product — anti-aging, perhaps? — but they need your credit card information. This type of scam also happens via phone. Seniors get a call and they're offered a new product that promises youthful energy. Once they have your loved one interested, they ask for a credit card number to seal the deal.
[Related Article: Act Fast: A Hotline for Elderly Financial Fraud Victims]
Keep an eye on caregivers: Maybe your mom is still at home and has home healthcare a few days a week. Or maybe she's in a nursing facility and there are nurses and various medical assistants everywhere. Hopefully, your parent is exposed to professionals who are trustworthy. Just keep in mind that there are way too many reports of caregivers using the credit card of the people they've sworn to take care of. It's horrible that someone would stoop so low. But it happens all the time.
If you can, it's best to visit frequently and shred any mail that has personal information on it. If your mom has credit card accounts, you can view account activity online with her. You can even opt out of paper statements altogether. That way, you won't have credit card account numbers within easy reach of whomever is in the room. Credit card fraud could still occur, of course, but by checking accounts online several times a week, you'll notice if something fishy pops up on her statement.
Even if you can't visit often, you can still check her credit card accounts online every week from your own home. But ask for her permission to make sure she doesn't feel like you're invading her privacy.
Keep an eye on other family members: I hate to say this, but often it's family members who rob their own parents or grandparents. If you have a family member with issues, such as drug addiction or gambling debt, then that's a red flag and warrants keeping an eye on things. When someone is desperate for money, they can justify taking it from anyone. They're counting on the fact that no one will notice. You can prove them wrong by keeping on top of credit card account activity.
Look at the mail. You can learn a lot from the mail. Is your loved one getting letters from "charities" asking for a donation via her credit card? If she's getting letters from organizations, she may have sent money to them previously. As suggested earlier, looking at credit card accounts online is a good way to make sure she isn't authorizing payments to fraudulent entities.
Pay attention to new friends: The National Committee for the Prevention of Elder Abuse recommends keeping track of any new "best friends." It may all be very innocent, but if it's sudden and there's an age difference, this may be a red flag that someone is planning to commit fraud.
Beverly Blair Harzog--Credit.com's Credit Card Expert, Beverly focuses on credit card issues and provides insight about current news that affects the credit card industry and consumers. She's a nationally recognized expert on credit card issues and is also the co-author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Person-to-Person Lending. Reach Beverly at firstname.lastname@example.org.