Frank Ramos remembers when he first realized his 90-year-old father had a problem.
"My father and I were chatting on the telephone, and he advised me that he won $400,000," says Ramos. "He [said] he won second place in a sweepstakes and ... had just gotten back from Wal-Mart where he had purchased a money order for $1,800 to cover some of the processing fee associated with the win."
Ramos -- whose name has been changed to protect his father's privacy -- says that ended up being just the tip of the iceberg. When he traveled to visit his dad the next month, he found armloads of mail that included bogus checks, sweepstakes entries and solicitations from questionable charities. What's more, within the first two hours of walking in the door, Ramos fielded 30 phone calls from belligerent scammers who were trying to strong-arm money from his father.
It's a story that is replayed across the country. Whether it is from declining cognitive abilities, a trusting nature or a combination of several factors, seniors seem to be particularly susceptible to scams. According to the American Society on Aging, although seniors make up 12 percent of the population, they are roughly 30 percent of the nation's scam victims.
A problem with no easy solution
Unfortunately, as Ramos discovered, there is often nowhere to turn for help once a senior has been victimized.
"The Attorney General Office of Oklahoma told me that there is little they can do to help," says Ramos. "Most mail is from out of the country and most of the telephone calls are coming from voice-over IP (VoIP) telephone numbers that are obtained by these scammers outside of the U.S."
Nicholas A. Reister, an attorney with Smith Haughey Rice & Roegge in Grand Rapids, Mich., agrees. "Once money has left the country, there is no way to get it back."
However, that doesn't mean individuals are helpless to address scams or that steps can't be taken to prevent further instances of fraud.
Six steps to halt scammers
Reister recommends individuals take six steps to address immediate concerns, as well as create a long-term plan to keep predators at bay.
- Contact financial institutions to flag or freeze accounts. In some situations, such as fraudulent activity on a credit card, the institution may reverse the charges.
- File a police report. Even if the police decline to take action, the report provides a paper trail to document the fraud and may be helpful in disputing charges or taking future legal action.
- Order credit reports to look for other suspicious activity. Fraud against seniors is often not an isolated incident, and you can request free credit reports from annualcreditreport.com, the only site authorized by the government to distribute free reports.
- Review bank accounts, insurance policies, investments and annuities for changes in account ownership or beneficiaries. Reister says this is a sneaky way some people defraud seniors. Rather than taking money while a senior is alive, scammers switch beneficiaries or account ownership so assets will legally transfer to them upon the senior's death.
- Review wills, trusts and powers of attorney. Watch for changes that may have been made under undue influence.
- Consider petitioning for guardianship or conservatorship. Reister says in instances in which an individual's mental capacity has diminished, the court may appoint a guardian or conservator who then has the power to void future transactions and take control of an individual's finances.
Other tactics that might help
In addition to these steps, adult children and caregivers may need to take other steps to protect their parents and loved ones from scammers. Ramos switched his father's landline and cell phone number not once, but twice, in order to the stop the calls. In addition, he opened a post office box near his home and routed his father's mail there so he could weed out the fraudulent mailings first.
Another tactic Ramos used was to put a freeze on his father's credit reports and sign his dad up for a credit-monitoring service.
"I signed my father up for LifeLock," he says, "and that service has already caught attempts by someone trying to use my father's identity to open accounts in other places."
Although Reister says he doesn't have much experience with credit-monitoring services, he agrees that, at least in theory, they can be a good buy.
"Conceptually, I think it's a great idea," Reister says. "The cost of correcting that damage (from identity theft) is huge. You need to weigh the risk and then balance that value against the cost (of the service)."
Protecting dignity along with finances
Senior fraud may be a much bigger problem than statistics indicate. Not only might some seniors never realize they've been the victim of fraud, others may be too ashamed to ask for help.
"It is embarrassing for the victim," explains Reister. "When helping loved ones, help preserve the person's dignity."
Ramos discovered the hard way to be careful about how you approach your senior parents with your concerns.
"I opened my big mouth and said, 'Well, you just lost $1,800 to a scam,'" recalls Ramos about his reaction to his father's revelation. "Not the appropriate thing to say to your 90-year-old father."
For Ramos, the experience of trying to protect his father's finances has been eye-opening. The lack of government protections and resources to address the problem has been disheartening.
Until the law finds more effective ways to deal with scam artists who target seniors, family members should remain alert to catch developing frauds before they balloon into an emotional and financial nightmare.