How To Recognize a Scam

by | Jan 5, 2023 | Fraud & Scams

To avoid a potentially devastating fraud situation it’s important to talk with your aging loved ones, early and often, about how to recognize common scams and protect themselves from exploitation. I am frequently told that talking about finances is the hardest conversation most families have, especially if there is a concern that there is mishandling or a scam taking place. One of the most important pieces of advice I have for you is be bold, be honest and be FIRM when you are having the scam talk. Almost every family that comes to me after they or their loved one has been scammed says, “I only wish I had talked to my aging loved one about this sooner – before she let that swindler take all her money.” 

I recently received a sad phone call from Mary, an older friend who is very close to our family. Her sister Rachel had committed suicide. Mary told me that when she was preparing Rachel’s house for it to be sold’ she found a huge pile of very strange emails back and forth from her sister to an organization in India. The emails said that if her sister did not wire them money, they would send someone to her house to beat her up. The emails revealed that they knew her name, date of birth, address, social security number, and they had a copy of her passport. It turns out Mary’s sister had purchased a cruise online that was from a fraudulent website, and during the process, all of this information was requested. Mary’s sister unsuspectingly provided everything they needed to scam her out of $296,000 – all of her life’s savings! Mary accessed her sister’s computer and found a few email conversations between Rachel and the organization dated the day her sister died. Rachel was trying to explain to the people calling her that she had no more money to send them, and they said they did not believe her and were sending someone to find her. Rachel took her life shortly after she received these threatening emails. When Mary went to close her bank account, Rachel had a remaining balance of $2.75. Don’t let that be you! 

Here are some tips and “conversation starters” to help ease the conversation and EMPOWER your aging loved one’s to be on the lookout for these bad characters that are trying to scam them. 

  • Be a Peer, Not a Parent: It’s always tricky when you have to talk to your aging loved ones about sensitive subjects like this one. All I can say is, deal with it! With that advice in mind, be thoughtful about how and when you present the information – if you’re at a family reunion – probably not the best time. Right after they returned from a trip to Vegas where they lost $100 on the slot machine – spare them….you get it, I’m sure. First of all, take a deep breath and get your emotions in check or you might blurt out – “If you don’t do it for yourself, at least think about MY inheritance!” I’m not sure – but I’m thinking that’s probably not a good move. Come prepared with the facts, not just your vague feelings about why they should protect themselves from fraud. Be prepared with personal stories you’ve heard from friends (or from cops or lawyers – those are always impactful). Make sure you are in a quiet area away from distractions so you can both concentrate on the conversation. I always like to say – “Let the silence do the heavy lifting.” If you were a victim of fraud, confide that to your aging loved one in an effort to ease the potentially awkward conversation. Being scammed can be very embarrassing, and on many occasions, victims go to their graves without telling a sole – empathy can go a long way in these situations.
  • Show and Tell: The best way to help your aging loved one genuinely understand the havoc a scammer can wreak on all of your lives is by using real-life stories – especially if it involves someone they know! These accounts of actual scams are not hard to uncover. All it takes is getting a few of your friends together for coffee or cocktails and simply asking them if they know anyone, or if any of their aging loved ones, have been scammed. If your friends claim they are somehow immune to fraudsters, fat chance, they are more likely too embarrassed to expose that their “brilliant parent” took the bait. You can easily enter “worst elderly scam ever” in a search engine; you’ll have no problem finding a story that will have you calling a fraud prevention expert in a minute!
  • Make it Relatable: One of the reasons why I have had so much success training older adults (and their families) about the multitude of fraud threats out there is because I know how to present the information in a way that they can understand. One of the most important ways to do this is by explaining how different today is from yesteryear, not in a patronizing way. So, let’s use the example of simply tossing your paper bills in the trash without shredding them and how this can very easily lead to identity theft. Your parents may still think it would be unusual for a “non-Mafia” related criminal to go through their old food cartons and banana peels to get their bank account number or Medicare data (this action is commonly referred to as “dumpster diving”). Oh, and don’t forget their address, and in many cases, their date of birth is frequently on these documents. A fraudster’s GOLDMINE! Make sure you involve your loved one in the conversations don’t just make it one-sided. Ask them why and how they think things have changed as it related to fraudsters. This is a great ice breaker to start the conversation about how scams have evolved over the years.

DID YOU KNOW? The term “dumpster diving” emerged in the 1980s, combining “diving” with “dumpster”, a large commercial trash bin. The term “Dumpster” itself comes from the Dempster Dumpster, a company started in 1937 that sold a brand of bins manufactured by the Dempster Brothers.

  •  Look it Up: If your parents are a tough sell when it comes to convincing them that they are more of a target than they think, show them the “money,” and your favorite search engine will help you do that very quickly. Just ask them to type their name into an online search engine. If they have never searched their name on the Internet, I feel they will be astonished. I would recommend that you do this experiment in advance just in case they have no web presence – it will be a bust otherwise! If that is what happens, use either yourself or another family member or friend, they know as the fraudsters example target. By doing this, it will help them see firsthand how much information is readily available about all of us online. It will also allow you to say things like, “Wow, can you imagine a fraudster might use this information?” It is much simpler to articulate the danger that comes with certain kinds of technology if you allow your aging loved ones to see for themselves how much of our personal information is out there in the ether.

 PRO TIP: If you want to help prevent your parents, or your, every move from being widely distributed online, you might want to consider using a more private search engine. Most search engines will track your movement around the web and ambush you with personalized messages. This is why I use a privacy-oriented search engine called DuckDuckGo. On their website, DuckDuckGo claims they “Don’t store your personal information or follow you around with ads. We don’t track you. Ever.” There are several other reputable private search options, such as Qwant and Startpage.

  • No Money, No Worries: This response is oh so common when I am giving a lecture on scams, especially when it comes to identity theft. Many older adults, people in general, read stories about celebrities or athletes and see their big houses and fancy jewelry and cannot fathom that a fraudster would waste time going after their measly little $50K in their retirement fund. Let me start by saying that money is money, and scammers will take it in any denomination! That being said, money is not the only thing they are after; they are also anxious to steal your personal information for a myriad of other reasons. One of the scariest examples you could give is what could happen when a fraudster steals your aging loved one’s health information and either sells it or impersonates them when visiting doctors. Even worse, they pretend they are you and have major surgery! This activity happens much more often than you might think! says that if someone calls you and asks for your Medicare Number or other personal information, hang up and call 1-800-MEDICARE (1-800-633-4227). If you suspect identity theft or feel like you gave your personal information to someone you shouldn’t have, contact the Federal Trade Commission.
  • Prove It: Many of the examples you give your parents of scams happening out there may seem so foreign to them that you need to take a different route by very subtly passing information on to them about actual scams taking place today. If you share official scam alerts with your aging loved ones regularly, they will begin to get used to the fact that this is all, not just a farce – it is reality. The “AHA” moment happens when you’ve sent them an alert and low and behold; they hear about it again from a friend or on the news – OR – if they personally get a call or email from a scammer using the same theme. I always tell my clients that their loved ones might seem like they’re not listening to you – but believe me, they are, and they will especially remember what you said if they hear it again from another source. Many organizations even allow you and your loved ones to sign up to receive email or text notifications of new fraud alerts so that you don’t have to be the one keeping track of the latest scams all the time.

PRO TIP: When you share an official scam alert with your parents, it adds credibility to the concern, especially when the alert comes from a federal agency or a reputable company. A few online sources for alerts include, FBI Common Fraud Schemes Database, the Federal Trade Commission Most Recent Scam Alerts List, AARP Fraud Watch Network, and the IRS Tax Scams and Consumer Alerts Newsroom.

  • Leave Behind the Leaflets: I’ve noticed that very frequently, clients will attend a fraud prevention lecture I have given, and while they are there, they will act like this could never happen to them. As a part of the education process, I leave each attendee with informative blogs or how-to-articles that they can read later. When all of the scary stories I’ve told them begin to sink in, they are frequently ready to put some of the best fraud prevention practices we discussed in place! So, when you’re talking to your aging loved ones, be sure to leave them with some information they can peruse on their own time, and don’t forget to mention the fact that you used these resources in the past and felt they were extremely helpful. Not to worry, they are heeding your advice – you just might not feel it sometimes!