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Your Turn: Senior scams take a variety of forms

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Credit card fraud

The Federal Trade Commission recommends always using a credit card rather than a debit card when shopping online since credit cards usually have better purchase protections.

The huge growth in e-commerce since the start of the pandemic has meant an increase in scammers, as well. To avoid scams, don’t purchase from sellers charging significantly less than the going rate for the item, and only give your card details through the marketplace site (not through email or text).

Read the reviews to make sure they’re legitimately reviewing listed items. Partnered sellers that are rated or acknowledged by the marketplace are more likely to be legitimate. If you see a suspicious charge on your credit card statement, call the company to dispute it, put a hold on your account, and request a new card.

Scoundrels who take financial advantage of seniors are always working to enrich themselves. In Napa, there are unfortunately all forms of financial elder abuse. Illegal or improper use of an older adult’s funds, property or assets is elder financial abuse. All elders, whether they are surrounded by family and friends, or alone and isolated, are vulnerable in every racial, ethnic and socio-economic situation. Many trusted persons close to or inside the home use schemes to commit theft from elders taking cash, checks and using debit and credit cards. Meanwhile, other opportunists swoop in to take their victims’ assets in targeted hits involving deeds, wills, trusts and powers of attorney. Financial abuse from strangers, who prey on elders using a wide variety of scams, is also common.

Common characteristics of abusers:

Abusers don’t present themselves as criminals

  • Caregivers may be draining your accounts or using your debit or credit cards to illegally supplement their income. Be vigilant and review your finances regularly.
  • Family and friends who seem loving and helpful may be also wrongfully helping themselves to your assets. It’s important to remember that even if you trust someone, you should still verify that your finances are secure.
  • Imposters claim to be from the bank, IRS, Social Security, Lottery or PG&E (to name just a few) and try to worm PIN numbers or to gain access to your home. Be wary.
  • Scammers call and pretend that your grandchild is in danger/trouble and needs money fast. Variations of the scheme include acting as an attorney, law enforcement or your own grandchild and giving scripts to the victim so they can parrot a convincing story if the bank questions the large withdrawals.
  • Scammers scan obituaries and then descend on the surviving spouse and pressure them into risky financial transactions when they are at their most vulnerable. Abusers have also been known to invade vacant homes during funerals or to directly contact their victims by a barrage of phone calls offering un-asked-for services.
  • Romance/Sweetheart scammers capitalize on the loneliness and isolation of elders who are vulnerable to the attention of a younger, attractive partner. Marriage to the victim so the abuser can gain legal access to their property is not uncommon. Beware of fraudulent use of social media and dating websites/apps. Fake photos and stories are commonly used to communicate by email, text or WhatsApp and the victim never sees their scammer in person.

Abusers like their victims compliant

  • Victims who are afraid to complain or report their suspicions risk losing their life savings. Don’t hesitate to reach out for help.
  • Victims who obey official-sounding directives from robocalls or computers or texts that trick them into giving up personal information, passwords, special access or money. Don’t fall for any online or over the phone requests for any personal information.
  • Abusers want victims act quickly to purchase gift cards or to send money. Legitimate companies never ask for payment in the form of gift cards. A huge red flag for abuse is the demand that the money come quickly – so you don’t have time to think and change your mind.
  • Abusers caution or threaten their victims to keep everything secret. Don’t let yourself be fooled into keeping silent.
  • Subtle or not-so-subtle tactics such as coercion, intimidation, threats, undue influence and exploitation are used by some abusers to gain victims’ cooperation. Elders who have some degree of dementia are more susceptible to these fraudsters.

Abusers don’t like questions or interference

  • Those who don’t report because they “don’t want to get involved” are permitting continuing abuse.
  • Abusers avoid direct contact with banks and financial advisors since they are mandated reporters and must report suspicious transactions.
  • Abusers often isolate their victims and instigate changes in longstanding relationships with family, friends, bankers, CPAs, doctors and attorneys.
  • Abusers will try to evade Napa’s unique ordinance which requires a background check for in-home caregivers, exposing any candidates’ criminal history – call the Caregiver Coordinator for more information at (707) 259-8789.

Abusers don’t care about the consequences to you

  • Victims who lose their life savings experience a drastic downward lifestyle, leading to financial dependence.
  • Loss of one’s life savings and lifestyle often leads to debilitating depression, resulting in adverse physical effects.

Abusers hate APS and Law Enforcement

  • Don’t hesitate to call if you are suspicious – call law enforcement or Adult Protective Services (APS) 24 hours at (888) 619-6913.
  • If you are in doubt about whether something should be reported, report.
  • You may report anonymously to APS. APS cannot act without their clients’ consent, so elders with the ability to care for themselves remain in control of their affairs.
  • APS will cross-report to law enforcement and vice versa.
  • Scammed savings are forever lost – victims rarely, if ever, recover anything.

The matter will be dropped if there is no abuse. If there is abuse, losses will be minimized. Your elder family member, friend or neighbor will be grateful. If you suspect you are being abused, and are hesitant to get help, consider making an anonymous report to protect your own assets! In addition to protecting yourself, you may also be helping to prevent the perpetrator from victimizing his or her next intended elderly target.

Diane Knoles has been a Deputy District Attorney in Napa since June 2020, where she heads the Elder Abuse Unit. Knoles spent the previous 34 years at the San Francisco District Attorney’s office where, amongst many other assignments, she formed the first Elder Abuse Unit there.

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