In the second of our investigative series on elder scams that can befall our parents and grandparents, Austinite Dee Covey shares her keen insight on helping those we love create the best environment in their golden years.
Sylvia Sandstone* has a reputation in her community for being a very sharp cookie.
If they only knew, she worries.
“I never really felt my age until last year,” says the well-heeled 88-year-old widow. “Now I feel old and just plain stupid.”
As a young woman Sylvia inherited a tidy sum, invested wisely, “married well” (twice) and, until recently, was a University Park homeowner with no debt and a diversified portfolio that included a healthy chunk of cash.
Sylvia has all of her marbles yet could lose her comfortable independence because of a man almost seven decades her junior. The clever teenage Russian con artist knew how to spot American elderly online and took full advantage of the gullible woman, now an astonishing $658,000 poorer for the experience.
She hopes that her children will not find out about her mistake until she’s gone. She is embarrassed and ashamed, with severely diminished self-esteem.
Sylvia is hardly alone in this experience, yet many adult offspring can be remarkably helpful in helping to prevent these kinds of crimes, or in offering comfort in their wake.
According to The Huffington Post, “No other demographic falls victim to scams and fraud quite as much as Post50s. Older adults are more likely to have excellent credit, own their own home and keep valuables in the house, making them prime targets for con artists and criminals,” the respected online news organization says, adding that since the Post50s generations were raised to be polite and trusting, they are more likely to be the victims of sophisticated crooks.
When the well-traveled but occasionally lonesome Austinite Bud Harper*, 72, took an unidentified phone call, and had a “nice chat” with the sweet-talking stranger, he agreed to meet with her in his two-bedroom Northwest Hills condo on a Tuesday afternoon. She had asked if he’d like to know how to dramatically lower the cost of his expensive blood pressure and diabetes meds.
“Sure, who wouldn’t?” said the retired government worker before she talked him into the get-together. He didn’t ask how she got his name and personal information.
When she knocked on the door, Bud and his caller were both in for a big surprise. His savvy son, Aaron, was on the sofa waiting to hear all about the magic prescription. After learning of the meeting, Bud’s skeptical but respectful eldest offspring decided to take the afternoon off to make sure his usually smart Dad would not be swindled.
At first Bud balked, saying it was just “informational” and he didn’t need “babysitting”, but Aaron prevailed by being tactful.
“Dad, what can it hurt to have a second opinion? I’d like to know if there’s a way for Sally and I to save money, too.”
The attractive visitor was a smooth operator. After getting settled, she opened to a plastic pocket page with a form Bud had filled out and mailed, to show Aaron that his father initiated the contact. She then asked additional questions and rushed through a few confusing graphs on generic versus branded drugs, before addressing the real reason for being there: She was selling a variety of “end of life” burial services and a 20-year annuity, claiming that it was a far safer investment than stocks or bonds.
Both men politely listened but said very little, and the woman finally took her cue and beat it to the door. Bud was happy to see her go, yet felt like a sucker in front of his adult “kid.”
A recent study sponsored by the Investor Protection Trust and the National Adult Protective Services Association shows that 20% of senior citizens will be victims of financial fraud in their lifetime, and one in three is being asked for money by mail, email or in person – often by consultants with questionable credentials, or a person looking for an easy mark by targeting people disheartened watching their savings dwindle in the downturn.
While annuities like the one pitched to Bud are perfectly legal, many question the ethics of selling them to older retirees, often using their fear of the volatile stock market. Annuities do yield predictable interest that accrues when the money is left untouched over a long period. So it can make sense for a 38-year-old tech entrepreneur to buy a 20-year annuity, but that case is hard to make for a middle-income 72-year-old who is likely to need the funds prematurely (and early surrender charges and penalties can be sky-high.)
Fortunately Texas is one of a handful of states that has a “money back” law for annuities that protects those who have buyer’s remorse within 20 days. Experts say another smart move for senior investors is to seek advice from Certified Financial Planner™ before making a decision, and to check online fraud warning sites for any “too good to be true” offers.
Maria Reynaldo* could have used that advice. She is a successful second generation Mexican-American who graduated top of her San Antonio high school class in 1959, and built a small chain of restaurants with her late husband. Maria’s love of lottery and other games seemed innocent enough, until she responded to an email claiming that she was the recipient of an unclaimed fortune overseas. All she had to do was send an electronic check for a small fee with a bit of personal information to process the international transfer of two million dollars.
Maria thought what the heck, it’s but worth a try, and became the victim of swift and massive identity theft. These kinds of swindles and many others can be identified online by checking with the AARP Fraud Fighters program, http://www.aarp.org/money/scams-fraud. It is also a smart move to forward any suspicious email to the U.S. Secret Service, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Statistics show that millions of middle and upper-income families are affected by fraud, and talking about the issue makes others in the community less vulnerable.
“Fool me once and shame on you,” says Sylvia Sandstone, who retains her dignity and agreed to be interviewed in order to help others.
“Fool me twice, never,” she said with conviction.
*Names and some personal details have been changed.
Dee Covey is a crisis management professional and for more information on her, visit PRERnow.com