Each year millions of senior citizens are victimized by financial fraud or theft of money, property or valuable personal information. Often, an adult child or other relative is responsible. Other situations may involve trusted individuals such as caregivers, legal guardians, investment advisors or new “friends.” And because the types of abuse may differ widely, it’s important to take a variety of precautions. Here are suggestions for protecting yourself and your loved ones:
Choose an advisor carefully. If you’re considering hiring a new broker, attorney, accountant or other professional, even someone recommended by a friend or relative, it’s best to independently look into that person’s background and reputation before investing money or paying for services. For example, you can confirm that this person is properly registered or licensed and has a clean record with regulators and other consumers. When in doubt about how to research this information, ask your state Attorney General’s office or local consumer protection agency for guidance.
Make sure you not only understand the role an advisor will be playing, but trust that this individual will do what’s best for you and your finances. Don’t be afraid to ask questions or say no. After all, it’s your money!
Be careful with powers of attorney. At some point, you may want to have a power of attorney, a legal document that authorizes another person to transact business on your behalf. While powers of attorney can be very helpful, be careful who you name as your representative. “Powers of attorney can be easily misused because they allow the appointed person to step into your shoes and do everything you can do, including taking money from your account and borrowing money in your name,” warned Debi Hodes, an FDIC Consumer Affairs Specialist. “This is a matter to discuss with a lawyer who should prepare or review the document for you.”
Protect your personal financial information. Never give out your bank account numbers, Social Security numbers, PINs (personal identification numbers), passwords or other sensitive information unless you initiate the contact. These requests may come from an unsolicited phone caller, letter writer, e-mailer or a person who shows up at your door. Be especially wary of someone who congratulates you about winning a (bogus) prize or lottery but first demands payment for taxes or other fees.
Also, keep your checkbook, account statements, and other sensitive information in a safe place. And shred paper documents containing sensitive information that is no longer needed.
Closely monitor your credit card and bank account activity. Review your account statements as soon as you receive them and look for unauthorized or suspicious transactions, which should be reported to your bank immediately.
Take your time when deciding on a major financial decision or investment. Make sure you understand the transaction and ask questions if you don’t. If you need to, ask a lawyer or financial advisor to help you understand the documents and discuss what’s best for you. “Walk away from anyone who says you must make a decision or otherwise do something right now,” said Hodes.
Be aware of scams involving reverse mortgages. These loans enable homeowners age 62 or older to borrow money from the equity in their homes. However, reverse mortgages can be complex products with a variety of risks and costs, and there are many reports of schemes by unscrupulous individuals using deceptive offers and high-pressure tactics to steer senior citizens into using the funds from a reverse mortgage for inappropriate or costly loans or investments. For guidance on the responsible use of a reverse mortgage, including how to locate a lender or a housing counselor approved by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Federal Housing Administration, start at www.hud.gov/offices/hsg/sfh/hecm/rmtopten.cfm or call 1-800-569-4287.
Finally, here are additional tips:
- Beware of callers asking for money or information. If you’d like to reduce the number of telemarketing calls you receive, consider signing up for the national Do Not Call Registry (call 1-888-382-1222 or visit www.donotcall.gov). If you are on this list, be suspicious of calls from any company or organization that you have reason to believe is not eligible to contact you under the registry’s rules.
- Don’t comply with requests from strangers to deposit a check into your account (perhaps as part of an Internet sale) and wire some or all of it back. “If you send the money and the check is counterfeit, you may be held responsible by your financial institution for the losses,” said Michael Benardo, Chief of the FDIC’s Cyber-Fraud and Financial Crimes Section.
- If you use social media, many security experts advise against posting the names of relatives and anyone’s home address, full date of birth and daily activities because those can be valuable to a thief. “A scam on the rise involves con artists who look for personal information on the Internet that they can use to call or e-mail an elderly person and pretend to be a relative in distress — such as a grandchild being injured, in jail or lost in a foreign country — and needing money sent fast, without telling anyone else in the family,” added Benardo. “They may also represent themselves as a lawyer or law enforcement agent needing money to help your relative.”
To learn more about common frauds targeting seniors, start at the FBI’s Web page at www.fbi.gov/scams-safety/fraud/seniors. For more guidance on protecting against a variety of schemes, see back issues of FDIC Consumer News (online at www.fdic.gov/consumernews) and visit www.mymoney.gov/category/topics/scams/-fraud.html.
This article from FDIC's Winter 2012 Consumer News.