Every year thousands of Maine people discover that elderly parents or relatives have fallen prey to con games targeting seniors by mail or phone. The financial loss to Maine seniors is often catastrophic, wiping out lifetimes of savings, leaving the family inheritance in the hands of crooks.
Seniors, often widows, widowers or others living alone are victims of choice for crooked lotteries and sweepstakes, especially ones that claim you are a “guaranteed” winner. Religious scams are also high on the list.
Warning signs are easy to spot. Elderly victims often accumulate hundreds of letters, postcards and packages containing solicitations or cheap merchandise. Typically, the crooks filch thousands of dollars in the form of registration costs, auditor’s fees, shipping charges and the like. As the victims are “reloaded” by successive marketers, the telephone may be literally ringing off the wall and the mailbox overflowing with come-ons.
Family members often hesitate to request access to relatives’ checking, savings, or credit card accounts until they become ill or unable to handle their own financial affairs. Only then may they discover the extent to which their loved ones have been victimized.
One son lamented, “My parents grew up in the Depression. They saved their money for their old age. Their total loss so far is $105,000 over a two-year period. I don’t know what possessed them to do this. It’s like they were just that … possessed.” Both his mom and dad were eventually diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. “It was almost a relief when I heard it. At least I now have an explanation for how this happened,” he said.
But the explanation may be much simpler. Seniors tend to be vulnerable, trusting, and easy targets for a con artist.
An experienced con artist may appear to be a “good person” by speaking politely. The older generation lived in a society where good people had good manners. While also having their share of “smooth talkers,” many older people today stereotype criminals as rude or crude in looks and behavior. A polite younger person can catch them off-guard. Older people may feel that age alone gives them the experience to pick out a criminal; a well-mannered youngster can’t fool them! Some feel safe because they lock doors or have a good security system, not considering that crooks also work by mail or telephone.
Seniors who live alone are particularly vulnerable targets. They are often lonely for the attention afforded by phone calls or letters. No one is present to give them feedback on fraudulent offers or rushed demands for cash and they worry about their money. Everything costs more than older people are accustomed to. What used to feed a family of five now feeds only one or two. Con artists prey on that fear.
While economic crimes may not involve violence, as in robberies or assaults, victims still pay a high price. Elderly people may no longer be working, so they can’t recoup their losses. They are even more devastated emotionally by the humiliation and pain of being victimized.
Much as parents seek to protect their children from harm, so may adult children protect their parents from financial loss at the hands of unscrupulous operators preying on the elderly. COMBAT and the United States postal inspector recommend that adult children visiting elderly relatives be on the lookout for signs that loved ones are being victimized. Become involved as an adviser on financial matters. To do so is not an intrusion, but an act of love.
Consumer Forum is a collaborative effort of the Bangor Daily News and Northeast COMBAT. Send questions to Consumer Forum, Bangor Daily News, P.O. Box 1329, Bangor 04402-1329. COMBAT is a nonprofit organization with annual dues of $10. For membership information, write to the above address.