Why fraudsters target seniors -- and how to fight back

Senior fraud is a multimillion dollar problem with few solutions. Fraudsters target seniors that are lonely, vulnerable and uneducated about scams. Targeted seniors are either embarrassed to speak up, unwilling to be rude to their new "friends" or simply don't know they're being defrauded. Fighting back comes down to educating older Canadians. senior-targets

During 2013, Canadians 60 and older accounted for almost half of the $57.9 million in mass marketing fraud losses, reported to the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre (CAFC). However, the CAFC estimates that 95 per cent of elderly victims fail to report fraud attacks, skewing that percentage.

Criminals view seniors as being a ripe supply of cash, and with good reason. The Vanier Institute's 15th Annual Family Finances Report shows the average net worth of unattached Canadians 65 and older was $407,500 in 2012, while senior families came in at $983,100.

Why seniors make easy targets
1. They have social or health issues that lower their defenses

Some victims struggle with age-related cognitive impairments like dementia, which makes it difficult for them to understand what is happening in a conversation. Fleischmann has found that older adults with health, social and psychological issues are more susceptible to fraud, and notes that medication could also negatively impact a senior's reasoning capacity.

But victims' isolation is often what gives fraudsters the most power over some them. Lacking social support, a disconnected senior may come to psychologically depend on the fraudster and believe everything the fraudster says.

Housebound elders are easily charmed by smooth-talking perpetrators at the door and on the phone, eloquent pitches in the mail or persuasive communication via the Internet. Scammers often pretend to be friendly, caring and helpful, and are willing to cultivate a relationship. Eventually though, they will try to pressure their target into making fast decisions involving money or property based  on that emotional bond rather than on facts or logic.

A lonely senior may appreciate any contact with another person, so it may not be hard for a fraudster to gain an older person's trust, says Jeffrey Schwartz, executive director of Consolidated Credit Counseling Services of Canada.

One 82-year-old maxed out his credit card and a line of credit on processing fees supposedly needed to collect prize money from myriad contest notices he received in the mail. In a victim impact statement to the CAFC, his daughter wrote that her father must now repay the swindled money plus interest from his tiny pension income, and that "Dad's isolation and lack of critical thinking skills have made him a prime candidate for mass marketing fraud."

2. They are hesitant to report the crime
Constable Patricia Fleischmann, vulnerable persons coordinator for the Toronto Police Service, says many seniors are embarrassed into silence about being defrauded. Some fear being sent to a nursing home and losing their independence if they appear to have lost control of their mental faculties.

Older adults from certain cultures may be particularly reluctant to report family members. For instance, immigrant seniors often depend on relatives who are the only people with whom they have regular contact, thus the seniors are afraid to displease them.

"Family members who sponsored them may convince them that handing over control of one's finances is the way it's done here in Canada," says Kenise Murphy Kilbride, a Ryerson University professor who has studied immigrant senior issues extensively. Many seniors interviewed in Murphy Killbride's studies are adamant that one should never shame relatives, so family members perpetrating fraud or other abuse would never be reported.

Some elders are also sensitive about preserving the image of their ethnic community in the eyes of the larger Canadian society.

3. The fraudster confuses them until they give up information
A phone scammer may talk continuously, not letting the intended victims off the phone until the victim divulges credit card information or other sensitive personal data.

"Fraudsters can also use complicated language, double-speak and unfamiliar words to confuse their target audience," says Fleischmann.

Fighting back against senior fraud

  • Make a checklist of questions. Schwartz recommends seniors keep a list of critical questions to ask each time they face a potential fraud attempt. This reduces the number of items an older person has to recall from memory when they get into a potentially dangerous situation.
  • Overcome isolation. This can be tricky, but is critical. "You need to have people around who will advocate for you, stand up for your best interests and protect you from financial threats," says Fleischmann.
  • Be skeptical. Fleischmann says there's nothing wrong with being suspicious, so go with a "trust no one" attitude. Avoid making assumptions and never give the benefit of the doubt.
  • Don't be afraid to be rude. Fleischmann gives public presentations on elder abuse, in which she tells participants that they have her permission to be brusque with suspicious callers. When she answers the phone for her ailing father, Fleischmann asks "What do you want?" and doesn't hesitate to say she is not interested and then hang up.
  • Get organized. Make sure your financial papers are up to date. Keep copies of receipts and transaction records, and regularly review your bank and credit card statements. Make sure you tell a trusted person where that information is as well.
  • Automate credit protection. Subscribe to a credit monitoring service or place a credit file alert, especially if you are are uncomfortable checking credit reports by yourself. "Credit monitoring services and alerts can be extremely effective in not only protecting yourself, but also in terms of mitigating any loss that comes from a fraud," says Schwartz.
  • Stay mentally alert. Igor Grossmann, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Waterloo has some good news for seniors: some studies seem to dismiss stereotypes about all older adults being gullible and susceptible to fraud. For example, there is evidence that those aged 60 to 75 perform at least as well as, if not better than, their middle-aged counterparts on tasks requiring reasoning about social matters.

    Grossmann suggests that seniors maintain their cognitive abilities through training and engaging in mentally stimulating activities, combined with physical exercise.

  • Take time to think through financial decisions. Scammers often try to create a sense of urgency to prevent you from critical reflection on a request or demand. Older adults are particularly likely to perform inappropriately if no time for deliberation is provided.

    "By taking some time when making a financial decision, adults of all ages may effectively combat some fraud attempts, realizing that if a deal sounds too good to be true, it probably is," Grossmann says.

Where to go for help
Not knowing who to call is a big problem for many seniors victimized by fraud. In addition to contacting their local police or Crime Stoppers, older victims or a third-party aware of a potential crime can call one of the senior support lines below. Most of these support lines are staffed by volunteers in the same age bracket, which may make elderly callers less self-conscious and more comfortable about discussing fraud and other forms of financial abuse.

Seniors financial abuse help
Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre (SeniorBusters)
1 (888) 495-8501
Safeguards for Vulnerable Adults Information and Reporting Line
1 (888) 357-9339
Centre for Elder Advocacy and Support 1 (866) 437-1940
Seniors Abuse Support Line
1 (888) 896-7183
New Brunswick
Adult protection Program for Vulnerable Adults
1 (866) 444-8838
Seniors Resource Centre
1 (800) 563-5599
Nova Scotia
Seniors Abuse Information Line
1 (877) 833-3377
Ontario Seniors Safety Line
1 (866) 299-1011
Seniors Secretariat: Office of Seniors 1 (866) 770-0558
Victim Support and Elder Abuse Support Line
1 (888) 489-2287
Victim Services
1 (888) 286-6664

See related: Cybercrime is nothing to like or share; Identity thieves target rewards points

Updated August 21, 2014

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