Protecting Mom and Dad from Phone Fraud

If you are caring for Mom or Dad, be aware that con artists target senior citizens because too often they are easy prey. What makes seniors so susceptible? FBI.gov lists these factors and others on their “Common Fraud Schemes” page:

1. Seniors grew up in an era that emphasized common courtesy. This makes it difficult for them to be “rude” by saying “No!” or hanging up on a caller.

2. Seniors are less likely to report a crime. In some cases, elderly victims may be worried that if they confess their mistake, their children will jump to the conclusion that they can no longer handle their own affairs.

3. Many seniors are genuinely interested in products that promise cancer-fighting properties, or an end to aches and pains, or improved memory. And because science is always advancing, many things are possible now that weren’t imaginable a decade ago, so seniors may have trouble discerning truth from scam.

4. Many seniors have a “nest egg,” a home that is paid for, and excellent credit ratings. These factors make them particularly attractive to swindlers.

There are all kinds of frauds and scams that target seniors. In particular, phone fraud might involve these tactics:

“Free” prizes

Some scammers will pose as a sweepstakes official, or a marketing agent from a travel company, or some other legitimate-sounding business representative. They call seniors and tell them they’ve won cash or a free trip or some other attractive prize. During the conversation, the scammer may explain that taxes or fees have to be paid in order to receive the prize. Make sure your parents know that a legitimate prize will not require a fee, and any taxes due will be paid to the government, not to the business.

Cramming

“Cramming” is when a company other than the phone company adds a charge to your bill, hoping you won’t notice it. Often the charges are given vague names, like “Enhancement service,” “Voice mail,” or “Membership fee.” If you notice such a charge on your parents’ phone bill (or your own), call the phone company. In some cases, they may be able to make the correction right away; other times they may refer you to whatever company has actually levied the charge. In the case of Dorothy Denton, whose story was told in the Spring 2009 issue of a newsletter by the Citizens Utility Board (CUB), she finally had to tell her phone company that she had contacted CUB and was planning to file a complaint with the Illinois Attorney General if the charge wasn’t removed! The charge was removed.

It requires vigilance to not only notice such a charge, but also investigate it, and get tough when necessary! If the charge is small enough, many people would rather simply pay it than question it. Fraudsters know this.

Loss recovery scams

People who have already been swindled are particularly vulnerable to loss recovery scammers. The scammer might pose as a government agent assigned to your case to help not only catch the perpetrator but also recover the money that has been stolen. Remind your parents that if the “agent” asks for a large sum of cash to help conduct the investigation, he is a con artist. Government employees will never ask for cash to do their job.

Teaching your parents what to say

Even if your parents know they should not give out credit card or banking information over the phone, they may find it difficult to refuse. Scammers who target the elderly are experts at playing on their fears and winning their trust. Giving your parents a standard phone response — and practicing it with them — can keep them from being “too nice.” Suggest the following lines your parents can use on the phone:

  • “I never give out that information over the phone, but if you send me something in the mail, I’ll be happy to review it.”
  • “Could I have your phone number? I can’t make a decision about that today, but I’d like to do a little research and call you back if I’m interested.”
  • “My son/daughter/accountant handles my financial information. Is there a phone number I could have him call you at?”

Such responses give your mom or dad a way to be polite yet firm. Just as important, they allow your parents to express their dependence on family members as a positive collaboration rather than a necessity. And that kind of collaboration is the best protection against phone fraud.