Many older adults grew up in an era when trusting one another was more the norm than the outlier. A solid handshake took the place of a signed contract, and locked doors weren’t common – everyone was welcome! Today we live in a society that is fraught with security challenges, and we all must adapt. Our aging loved ones might have a blind trust in others that could eventually position them as a perfect target for disreputable fraudsters. It is always tough to figure out the best way to talk to your loved one after they’ve been scammed. When a loved one has been scammed, compassion for the victim is a critical initial step to help them start moving forward in a healthy and productive manner. The most important first action is to make sure you approach them with empathy rather than anger.
One of my clients was so distraught when they came to my office to report that they needed help because they were swindled out of thousands of dollars in what’s called a charity scam. Every time there is a horrible natural disaster somewhere in the world, vile fraudsters are the first to send emails that pull your heartstrings and relay how important it is for you to financially support the victims of the disaster. These scams can be very elaborate, with scammers even going to the length of creating fake organizations (imitating real ones) to fleece kind donors. Before my client and I launched into a full investigation, I took a moment to tell her what an incredibly generous and giving person she is and how so many people fall for these types of scams. She immediately calmed down and was able to tell me the details of what happened. By reacting from a place of empathy, the situation became easier for both of us!
Tread lightly as most victims are extremely embarrassed and often report they are left feeling vulnerable and fragile. Victims are afraid to tell their family when an event like this happens because they fear they will be perceived as unwise, incompetent, and perhaps no longer capable enough to handle their own finances. Research cites that only 1 in 4 older adults who are scammed inform the police or even tell family and friends because they feel humiliated and ashamed.
Some of my clients have even told me that they did not report a scam to their adult children because they were frightened that they would be forced to move into a retirement or assisted living community. One woman confided that when she told her son about the foolish romance scam she fell for, and the $175,000 she was eventually swindled out of, her son got violent and started hitting her because she had, quote, “pissed away his inheritance.”
Remember, although you may not find out about a scam from your loved “verbally,” there might be other signs that demonstrate something is off. Perhaps their overall personality and body language seem to have changed. They may remove themselves or withdraw from contact with you or seem less comfortable having what once seemed like a normal discussion about their money. When an individual has been involved in a scam, they experience a myriad of emotions, including guilt, anger, and depression, so look out for any mental health warning signs as well.
On the flip side, also be sure to look out for yourself – I call this “caring for the caregiver.” I have seen many cases where the adult child of a loved one who has been scammed feels helpless and frustrated when their loved one is in denial or will not openly discuss what happened. You want to try to open up the lines of communication as much as you can because the more information you can ascertain, the less arduous it will be to try and put their affairs back in order. Try to stay calm, even if it seems they have lost a ton of their money, be as patient and supportive as possible, and certainly don’t enter a conversation being patronizing or chastising them for their mistake.
How your loved one’s support system handles the aftermath of a fraud experience can seriously impact their level of comfort around sharing what happened and their overall healing process. If you respond with anger, your loved one will most likely shut down, and the tension will cause the situation to become even worse. Occurrences like this can be one of the most traumatic events one might experience, especially if the victim is on a fixed income and has lost a great deal of money that cannot be recouped. It may be wise to speak to a professional or engage a third party to help you talk through some of the next steps and help temper the emotions involved in the process.
If you, or your loved one, have been the victim of a scam, it’s important to report it and get the help you need. You may not always be able to get your money back, but hopefully, you can diminish the damage, start healing, and take appropriate steps to prevent something like this from happening to you again in the future.