Elder Fraud: How to Keep Your Family Safe

By: Dr. Stacey Wood, Ph.D.

Financial elder abuse is an epidemic in America, and today’s technology makes it easy for fraudsters to take their schemes global. Scammers can call or email from anywhere in the world, making it more difficult to trace the funds after a con artist disappears. According to reports, fraudsters take $37-billion every year from older adults in the United States.

Many scammers play on people’s drive for human connection. Whether the scams begin on social media, through telephone calls, from an email, or even in person, senior citizens are often in a position to be more vulnerable to fraudsters.

Elders don’t need to have experienced cognitive decline to be targeted. A recent loss, like a death in the family or a divorce, can make them more vulnerable. Odds of being scammed more than double during difficult life circumstances and those who are lonely or isolated may be more likely to fall for a romance scam or similar confidence trick.

People who are in a troubling financial situation, who are eager for a bargain, or enthusiastic about risk-taking can also be targeted for get-rich-quick schemes.

There are a number of different types of scams that target senior citizens. Health scams seek out seniors’ private Medicare information to submit false billing for reimbursement. Other medical scammers sell fake prescription drugs at cheap prices. This is a scam that can put seniors’ health and lives at immediate risk.

People who have lost a loved one are also targeted for funeral scams. Fraudsters call grieving people and claim that their loved one had a debt that must be paid. A variety of phone scams involve financial offers, investment opportunities, or claims of overdue taxes.

Many fraudsters take advantage of seniors who are less technically savvy or aware of social media norms. Internet schemes include romance scams over social media, fake anti-virus software used to extort money, or phishing schemes to gather online banking information.

Mortgage and investment schemes seek to divert seniors’ wealth to a con artist, while sweepstakes scams inform seniors that they have “won” prizes, but they must pay to receive their winnings. There is a multitude of schemes that target older Americans, and being aware of the wide range can help people avoid financial catastrophe.

As a caregiver, you may notice signs that something is wrong with your loved one’s finances. One common sign that a person has become a fraud victim is a sudden change in financial habits.

A frugal person may suddenly withdraw large sums of money but have little to show for it. An older adult with a healthy bank account may suddenly be running up debts or receiving collection calls. Others may suddenly discuss a new friend in their lives, often overseas and connected via social media.

Unfortunately, many victims experience fear and shame. They don’t want to admit to being victims, as they fear it will make them look incompetent. However, those understandable emotions can be a barrier to taking action to prosecute those responsible and potentially recover lost funds.

You can help the elders in your life avoid fraud. Open conversations about new friends or love interests can help shed light on potential scammers. Discuss social media use, as well as its pros and cons. In addition, advise loved ones to get a copy of their credit report each year to ensure accuracy.

Seniors can protect themselves by visiting financial advisors, lawyers, and their bank branch. Bank fraud personnel are trained to spot scams, so developing a trusting relationship with the local bank helps seniors protect themselves. Advise loved one to always request financial offers in writing and take time to consider before sending money, especially via untraceable methods like wire transfers or Western Union.

If you suspect that an elder in your life is a fraud victim, you can help by reaching out. A compassionate, non-judgmental approach can help to break the silence imposed by fear and shame. Loved ones can work together to support their family member and unravel the truth about a fraudster.

You can also take action by reporting the scheme to their bank; fraud departments are motivated to stop these schemes that cost banks millions. The authorities can also help. Adult Protective Services in your area is charged with protecting vulnerable adults. The local police also have a responsibility to investigate fraud, which is a serious criminal offense.

As a caregiver, your participation matters. In fact, your active involvement in a senior’s life helps fight fraud, because he/she will be less vulnerable to the emotional manipulation used in scams.


Dr. Stacey Wood, Ph.D., is a forensic neuropsychologist and one of the nation’s leading Dr. Stacey Woodexperts on financial elder abuse and fraud. She is the Molly Mason Jones Professor of Psychology at Scripps College and a licensed clinical psychologist in California. As one of the nation’s leading experts in the areas of forensic neuropsychology and geropsychology, Dr. Wood has vast experience as an expert witness in California and nationwide.

Fraud Alert! Take a closer look at those Phone Bills!

Take a closer look at those phone bills friends! A few months ago we noticed that a mysterious charge for ‘Vmail’ had appeared on the phone bill for one of fax lines. Our phone company had just switched us from paper to email billing so we almost missed the $14.95 charge hidden near the bottom of the bill. Fortunately we run a tight ship so the charge didn’t slip past us and we looked into the charge. What we found was disturbing; a nationwide cramming scam, phone companies hindering customer’s attempts to remove the charge, and a flawed telecommunications law making the whole mess possible.

Cramming’ is a scam where a company adds a charge to a phone bill for a service that was not requested, agreed to, or used. In our case, the charge was for a voice mail service on one of our fax lines –a service we never asked for, never agreed to, and which we could never use because it doesn’t actually exist. That’s right, even if we had wanted to use ‘Vmail’ we couldn’t because it doesn’t exist.

It took over five hours just to sort out things out with our phone company. We had a long run around through the automated system and from ‘wrong’ department to ‘wrong’ department. When we did speak to real people we got another kind of run around; they insisted that we had signed up for the service and when we insisted on having the charge removed we were transferred. Finally, we demanded to speak to a manager and got the answers we needed in less than ten minutes.

What we learned is that, legally, because of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, phone companies have to include charges from other companies in their bills unless the customer contacts them requesting a block of all third party billing. There is no selective screening, the 1996 law prevents phone companies from ‘discriminating’ against any companies which place charges. Our phone company could have saved us a lot of time and frustration by giving us this information from the start, it was terrible customer service on their part and completely unacceptable. But, otherwise, their hands are legally tied when it comes to this kind of scam. They are required by law to accept third party charges and have no legal means of verifying that their customer requested the services in question. Aside from the quality of their customer service, there is no difference between Qwest, Verizon, AT&T, Embarq, or any other national phone company when it comes to this scam.

How to prevent Cramming.

  • Call the phone company in question and demand that they block all third party billing on the account.  Sometimes phone company representatives try to talk customers out of the block but insist even if they say its not possible.
  • Carefully check every phone bill – act immediately if a new or unknown charge appears.

How to resolve Cramming.

  • Contact your phone company immediately and tell them that you did not authorize the charges and ask for the charges to be removed. Your phone company does have the authority to remove the charges but will often require* you to try to resolve the issue with the company that placed the charge.
  • Call the company that placed the charge and inform them that you did not request the services. Tell them that you would like to know who authorized the services and ask for a copy of the authorization information. Companies have been known to request more personal information, such as social security numbers, do not give them more personal information than they already have.
  • Ask that all charges be removed. If the company refuses or never responds, get back in  touch with the phone company. Tell them that you could not resolve the charges with the company in question and tell them that you did not authorize the disputed charges. Ask the phone company to remove all charges. Be insistent, even if they say they can’t – they can. Talk to more than one person if you need to.

Things to remember!

  • Customers are not legally obligated to pay charges on their telephone bills for services that they have not ordered or authorized others to order for them.
  • Telephone services cannot be disconnected because a customer refuses to pay a charge from a third party. Threats of phone lines being disconnected are legally empty.
  • Crammers sometimes hire legitimate collection agencies to collect the charges ‘owed’ to them. This can be very damaging to credit ratings and should be addressed immediately. Explain the situation to the collection agency and, if that resolves nothing, either pay the ‘charges’ or get legal aid.

We submitted complaints to the Federal Trade Commission, Federal Communications Commission, the Pennsylvania Attorney General (check the map on this page to find your state’s), and the Better Business Bureau. Little can be done to stop this kind of scam on a national level but several states, including New York and Florida, are taking action to prevent cramming. Get your State to join them in taking steps to outlaw cramming; send letters to your elected officials letting them know that you’re sick of this scam!

Read more information on Cramming from the Federal Trade Commission.