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How to Protect Your Elderly Parents From Being Scammed

Geoff Williams

From a young age, your parents taught you to be aware of stranger-danger. If you have elderly parents, you may have noticed the irony. Now you're telling your parents to be wary of people out to do them harm.

The national statistics on crimes affecting the elderly are sparse and outdated but instructive nonetheless. For instance, according to the National Institute of Justice website, a national 2007 study of more than 7,000 community residing elders estimated that 1 in 10 senior citizens reported experiencing at least one form of elder mistreatment in the past year. And the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging reported $40 billion in losses in telemarketing fraud--and that was back in 2000. Crime against senior citizens is so pervasive that over the years, elder crime units have cropped up throughout the country in police bureaus, aimed solely at protecting senior citizens.

It can be a challenge to even have a discussion with your parents about their susceptibility to crime and identity theft. Have the conversation too early, when your parents feel perfectly safe and relatively invulnerable, and they may justifiably be insulted that they're thought of as elderly and vulnerable. Bring up the topic in an artful way, and they may wonder if you're more concerned about keeping your future inheritance safe than your parents' well-being.

[See 10 Ways to Avoid Online Scams]

But it is an issue you'll likely want to discuss at some point, and until you do, you need to at least be on alert.

If your parent is lonely, he or she is a target. Depressing as it is to consider, if your parent is isolated with few visitors or not much of a support system nearby, he or she is an easier mark than someone who has an active life.

"People like that become very vulnerable when they meet people who appear to be trying to help them," says Thomas Cassidy, a clinical associate professor in the School of Social Welfare at Stony Brook University in Stony Brook, N.Y., and the author of "Elder Care: What To Look For, What To Look Out For!"

And of all the entry points where a criminal could come into your parent's life--the front door, the mail, the Internet--the phone still seems to be a favorite when it comes to fleecing a senior out of his or her money. That's probably due to the fact that savvy crooks know many senior citizens are lonely, and the phone can be a good way of connecting, not to mention an effective way of escaping (hanging up) if their prey is suddenly onto them.

"A lot of older people, they don't want to be rude and just hang up on somebody. They want to let them down nicely or talk to them," says Bill Archinal, of Amarillo, Texas, a member of the board of directors for the Home Care Association of America and the owner of a Caring Senior Service of Amarillo, a franchise that provides non-medical services to senior citizens, like fixing meals and vacuuming. "And a lot of these elderly people are lonely, and so if they get a chance to talk, they're going to."

There have been many stories in the media of seniors getting calls from people claiming to be everything from your neighborhood bank teller to the police, with seemingly logical requests about why they need your Social Security number right now. There's even a scam that was making the rounds a few years ago, where a con artist would call an elderly person and pretend to be their grandson, stuck in a Canadian jail and in need of a loved one to wire over some bond money.

So what can you do? Well, for one, if you feel strongly that your parents are susceptible, talk to them about it. If it seems pretty obvious to you, they may agree with you.

[Read: Should Seniors Live Alone or With Family?]

"Discuss the scams that are going on and communicate how they can become a victim. Make this the game for them to keep the con away before she or he gets a stronghold on them," advises Patty Hopker, who is based in Medford, Ore., and is a life coach who consults individuals and families on senior care issues.

If you're worried about the phone in particular, Hopker points out that at least so far, scammers tend to call homes with land lines. She thinks cell phones are more practical for the elderly.

But, of course, those other entry points can be dangerous, too. Depending on your comfort level and your parents' (or your own) finances, it might be time for a home security system, or to start monitoring your parents' mail for shady offers. Or it may be time to bring in a home caregiver who can be around and offer some guidance.

A safe may keep you safe. If you have a home caregiver watching over your mom or dad, however, you still have to be cautious. There are ample stories in the news of home care aids who have taken a senior citizen's credit card and gone on a shopping spree. Because of that, even Jeff Salter, the CEO of Caring Senior Service, advises that a senior citizen who will begin regularly having a service worker in the home buy a safe and lock up their valuables, like a driver's license and credit cards.

While home care aids go through stringent background checks, Salter concedes, "You never know when a good person has fallen on hard times, or where their son or daughter needs money, and suddenly they see that cash or ring on a table that would solve their problems."

Salter adds that a safe is a good idea no matter who is in the home, whether it's a plumber, electrician or someone to install a new doorknob, "especially if your parent is getting to the stage where they're not paying attention and letting their guard down."

[See 10 Warning Signs of Identity Theft]

When it comes down to it, even the occasional family member can be a threat to an elderly person's finances, which can make anyone paranoid thinking about all the ways their parents can get taken. But it's just a sad fact of life that the older you get, the more desirable you become to thieves.

"They go after them because they're the ones with the money," says Cassidy. "They have the pensions, the house, the Social Security checks, and they've had a lifetime to save money. Crooks look for targets with resources, and older people often have them."

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