Singletary: Learn to protect seniors from fraud

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Michelle Singletary welcomes comments and column ideas. Reach her in care of The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. N.W., Washington, DC 20071; or singletarym@washpost.com.

With every data breach comes an increased need for fraud sentinels for seniors.

And by that I mean if you are a caregiver for a senior, you should become familiar with schemes targeting the elderly.

Clearly there are many seniors who are fully capable of avoiding conmen trying to get their money. But particularly for those who have health issues or may be vulnerable for a host of other reasons, it’s important to have someone looking out for their financial well-being.

My grandmother and I had an agreement. Big Mama was incredibly competent with her finances right up to her death. But if she got mail or a phone call about anything financial, she would run it by me. (She never used a computer.)

” ‘Shell, what you think about this?” Big Mama would ask.

I was a constant presence in her life, checking to make sure nobody was taking advantage of her. Anyone who tried was greeted with my wrath.

Big Mama even took me to her credit union and bank to introduce me to the folks who worked there. She wanted them to be familiar with me and to know that I was her designated financial protector.

More than two-thirds of caretakers reported that a scammer had targeted their elderly relatives, according to a new survey of more than 1,700 people conducted by the Cooperative Credit Union Association, a New England-based trade group.

The survey found that, most often, the attempted fraud was initiated with a telephone call. Nearly 22 percent of scam attempts were made via email or another online contact.

CCUA also found that caregivers are worried about their elder relative’s ability to spot a fraud. And they’re right to be concerned. More than a quarter of respondents said that the elders under their care had fallen victim to at least one financial scam.

I fear that the major breach at Equifax — in which 145.5 million consumer credit files were compromised — will make things worse because the data stolen was so detailed. Hackers snatched consumer names, Social Security numbers and addresses. They also got two very vital pieces of information — birth dates and driver’s license numbers. This means scammers can cross reference the information and now specifically target people by age group.

A separate survey released this summer also highlighted the vulnerability of seniors. The North American Securities Administrators Association polled state securities regulators and found a 29 percent increase in elder fraud. In most cases, the financial fraud isn’t caught until it’s too late to prevent serious financial loss.

Here are a few things you can do help protect an elderly relative.

• Be a sentinel. Arrange with the senior to talk to you about any major financial decision before it’s made. Since we know most fraud starts with a telephone call, write out a short script for the senior, and place it near the phone. It could say, “I have been advised by authorities not to give out any of my personal or financial information if I did not initiate the contact. Thank you.”

• Practice fraud prevention. It’s not enough to just look out for fraud. You need to have a plan.

For example, coach your parent or relative to immediately hang up after reading the script. Many seniors consider it rude to hang up on folks. Help them get over this. The longer they engage with the scammer, the more likely the person will get the data he or she is seeking.

• Get educated. Credit unions and banks all have some sort of consumer education effort. Get their advice on how to spot and prevent a senior swindle.

All these high-profile data breaches mean we all need to be more vigilant and educated to reduce the likelihood that our elderly get scammed.