How to tell if your elderly parents are being scammed

Change in financial behavior is one of the clues

Time passes. You get on with your life and you have plenty to worry about – the kids, the mortgage, your job.

But you've never worried about your parents because they have always been the rock in your life. They have always looked out for you. Then, one day you realize you have to look out for them.

And sometimes the first time you realize that is when a con artist has made them the victim of a scam.

"Unfortunately, we know from our research that seniors are very attractive targets," Eleanor Blayney, Consumer Advocate for the Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards told ConsumerAffairs recently.

In a 2013 report, AARP recorded a surge in scams in New York City directed at senior citizens. Not only were the numbers up, the AARP report estimated that one third of elderly fraud victims don't report the crimes.

"Scam artists and fraudsters in New York City looking for their next victims have their craft honed down to a science," said AARP's state director Beth Finkel, in reporting the data.

Law enforcement has known for a long time that criminals usually prefer seniors as their victims, especially for economic crimes. Seniors are likely to have money tucked away. They probably own their home, or have lots of equity in it and have excellent credit.

So now it's your job to protect your elderly parents from scammers – and sometimes from themselves. What are the signs that they're being victimized?

What to look for

First, pay attention to what they are buying. If you notice a sudden change in financial behavior, such as a normally frugal parent suddenly making an odd major purchase – such as an incredibly expensive vacuum cleaner -- it could be cause for concern.

If they start expressing an interest in a reverse mortgage, you should ask why. Reverse mortgages are highly complex loans that are not right for everyone.

The New York Times reports regulators are cracking down on new cases of abuse as smaller mortgage brokers, including some that used to be in the subprime sector, target seniors.

Often seniors only hear that a reverse mortgage on their paid-for home could give them cash, without disclosing the numerous fees and other conditions.

Pay attention to who calls your parents on the phone. If you notice a large number of telemarketer calls, there is a good chance your parent has already been scammed at least once. Victims go on lists that are bought and sold on the black market.

The same goes with direct mail. Pay attention to the solicitations your parents get. Baby Boomers tend to ignore these of pitches and immediately toss them in the trash. The older generation – which lived through an era when daily mail was important -- read them, and all too often respond.

Slick pitches

Carol, a reader posting a comment on one of our previous stories about elder scams, said she must constantly stay vigilant to guard her mother from slick con artists.

“Last week, she got a call from a children's charity thanking her for her for the $40 pledge she made to them over the phone the week before,” Carol wrote. “Funny, mom was not home that week! She was at my house in another state! I told them what they could do with their fictitious pledge.”

The scammer obviously was hoping Carol's mother would be embarrassed she forgot the pledge – which she never made -- and write the check.

Another reader, Kathy, reported her mother got a call saying her husband had agreed to make a major purchase and they now needed a credit card number. An impossibility, since Kathy's father was deceased.

Monitor credit reports

Protecting an elderly parent requires some work. With your parent's permission, obtain their free credit report from the 3 credit reporting agencies, as allowed by federal law, at Read the reports carefully, looking for suspicious entries.

Since its establishment the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) has tried to offer help to caregivers who not only have to worry about their parents' physical well-being, but also protect them from financial predators.

If you are in the position of having to manage an elderly parent's financial affairs, you may find some help here.

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