According to the National Council on Aging, financial scams targeting the elderly are so common these days they are now considered among the top crimes of the 21st Century.
Seniors are often targets of telemarketing scams, bogus sweepstakes, internet fraud and unscrupulous home repair offers because of a perception that they have significant amounts of money just sitting around in their bank accounts.
The trouble is that not every solicitation for money sent to a senior is a scam, and even when they’re not, they can be just as dangerous to those bank accounts.
“Some of the mailed requests seniors get are from reputable organizations,” said Sharon Berz of Aroostook Area Agency on Aging. “And some of those will send multiple requests over and over, [and] the elderly person sends in a check each time, $25 here, $10 there.”
Over the course of a year, those mailed-in donations can add up to thousands of dollars, she said.
“It can be very frustrating for loved ones,” Berz said.
Often these are seniors living independent lives in their own homes and in control of their own finances, she said, which can make it tricky for their children or loved ones to get a handle on how much money is going out.
Berz said loved ones need to know when it is appropriate to step in as, ultimately, if the elderly relative is in charge of their own finances they may spend their own money in any manner they choose. The problem arises, she said, if they start overspending their budget.
“If you start to notice your parent or elderly loved one sending out a lot of checks, it may be time to start the conversation about sharing financial responsibilities,” Berz said. “Have the conversation on exactly where the money is going and how the finances are handled.”
Those conversations can be delicate, she said, especially if the elderly person feels their competence or independence is being called into question.
“These are not stupid people,” Berz said. “But they are vulnerable.”
For some seniors, sending out a check to a cause they support goes beyond altruism.
“For some it’s more about social isolation,” said Kim Lane, associate professor of mental health and human services at the University of Maine at Augusta. “It is a way for people to get connected to someone — anyone — but it is a very short lived connection.”
Because that connection is so fleeting, Lane said, there is the tendency to repeat it every time a new request for donations comes in.
“I’ve seen it myself,” she said. “My uncle once got 1,000 light bulbs for sending money to [an organization], and there is no way he could ever use that many light bulbs in his life.”
There also can be cognitive issues at play, Lane said, if the elderly individual is having difficulty with judgment or problem solving.
“One of the ways that comes out is this repeated responding to mailings or telemarketing calls,” she said.
“These seniors are still very trusting,” Berz said. “But if they can come up with some kind of line to use on phone solicitations that will refer the call to a trusted family member, that can help.”
It also can be a good idea for seniors to put all of their mail into a box and have a trusted family member go through it with them on a weekly basis.
“That way they can see what is legitimate and worth responding to or not,” Berz said. “Some of these requests for funds come in really official looking envelopes and can appear quite serious when they really are not.”
That kind of monitoring can be helpful, to a point, Lane said.
“A lot of people in that generation were raised you pay a bill the same day you get it,” she said. “That’s the way they want to live with their finances, even if it means sending out checks in response to fundraising requests [and] that can be difficult to monitor.”
It also is a good idea to talk about officially designating a trusted individual who can keep tabs on an elderly person’s bank account.
“Everything a person does is confidential,” said Elaine Jandreau, operations manager at Acadia Federal Credit Union. “Unless an elderly person tells us with 100 percent confidence we can talk about their finances with someone, we can’t do it.
As a financial institution, Jandreau said they do what they can to educate their members on internet and mail fraud, but when it comes to legitimate organizations asking for funds, there is not much they can do.
“For a lot of the seniors, they just want to be nice and help organizations out with donations,” Jandreau said. “If it is brought to our attention we can ask the member about it, but this is not something we can monitor with individual accounts.”
It really comes down to honest, two-way communication between the elderly and their family or trusted friends, Berz said, and even then there is only so much that can be done when the requests for funds come from legitimate sources.
“That’s why it can be so frustrating,” she said. “We get calls from people telling us mom or dad is giving away hundreds of dollars, but the reality is, if you are competent, you can give your money away wherever you want, and no one can stop you.”