How to protect ageing loved ones from scammers
A friend, Adele, is dealing with debt. Not her debt, her mother's.
Her mum, Jackie, had been an independent, active, hard-working general practitioner. Adele assumed she was financially secure, as she owned her house. Adele respected her mum's privacy and rarely had a conversation with her about her finances.
But Jackie started to make comments about bills and appeared stressed. Adele was shocked to discover that Jackie owed $250,000 and had a stack of unpaid bills. What's more, Jackie didn't understand how she got into debt.
It took Adele a while to find out where the money went.
Jackie's bank accounts were a mess. Years ago, she had given one of Adele's siblings $300,000 when his marriage broke down to help him buy a property. Although he promised to pay it back,
he never did.
Jackie is a generous and social woman who likes to help. But she lives on her own and feels lonely.
Be wary of new people around your loved ones
Jackie had mentioned a mystery man but was tight-lipped on details.
Adele found credit card statements for men's clothing and other expenses. Jackie had been handing over cash to him, too.
Jackie faced another hurdle that wasn't apparent, even to her family: cognitive decline.
This makes ageing parents particularly vulnerable to fraud as they can't assess risks like they used to.
Adele wishes she had been more on top of her mother's issues, but working full-time while raising three teenage kids made this hard.
She worked out a strategy to keep her mum afloat and stop her from spending so much: she moved Jackie into a small, affordable apartment and rented out her house to pay the interest on the debt.
She drip-feeds $100 at a time to her mother so she can keep tabs on her spending. Jackie constantly calls and asks for money, so it isn't easy.
The debt means that Jackie isn't able to pay for long-term aged care as she had once planned.
Watch out for unscrupulous charities
Keeping abreast of what is happening to your parents as they age makes sense for your own finances, too, because you may have to bail them out.
But it can be tricky. Parents are good at papering over any difficulties and may not want to talk about them either because they are embarrassed, or they love their abuser, or they may even fear losing their independence. They may also feel responsible for any of their children who may be experiencing financial distress.
Some parents are outraged - and sometimes suspicious - when their children want to know about their money.
When my own mum went into aged care, I discovered she had signed up for regular contributions to more than 30 charities. She was a kind woman and she loved animals and children. She gave money to her local church every Sunday. I do believe she was on a list targeted by charities.
I didn't go through her bank accounts or have a conversation about where her money went. She was reluctant to talk, stubborn and evasive. She didn't talk about money. The only sign was a lot of material about guide dogs and the RSPCA in her piles of mail.
But what I found worrying was that she had been pressured into giving her banking details to charities so they could take regular amounts from her account.
She was a part-pensioner, but the donations were probably more than what she spent on most expenses, except for strata fees.
When I did go through her mail after she moved into aged care, I found letters from well-established charities requesting she bequeath her estate to them when she died.
There are legal disputes when shocked families discover their parents have left their estate to one or more charities.
Safeguard their assets
Ageing parents need a system that protects them from fraudsters and organised crime. What is not so easy is keeping them safe from family members who are ripping them off.
Estate-planning measures, such as a durable power of attorney and an enduring guardianship, with trusted people can help protect their assets.
It is worth talking to your parents about the latest scams and imposters to keep them up to date. The Scamwatch website, run by the ACCC's National Anti-Scam Centre, urges people to stop and think before giving out money or personal information.
Additionally, ask your parents to consider whether a message or phone call could be fake.
If it feels wrong or suspicious, it is important to act quickly. This can be frustrating, as it can be time-consuming to get through to a financial institution. Also report incidents to Scamwatch.
Complex passwords and two-factor authentication can help protect them from having their savings wiped out.
How the vulnerable are targeted
In 2022, people aged 65 and older made the most reports to Scamwatch (49,163) and reported the highest losses ($120.7 million).
What's more, losses reported by women increased by 76.5% in 2022.
Older people are targeted by the same sorts of scams as the general population, but some scams are aimed specifically at them.
1. Tech support
When an imposter from 'tech support' calls with a fabricated story about a computer virus, or claims that the elderly person has been hacked, it is often a trick to get the person to hand over remote access to their device or computer.
According to Scamwatch, the average remote-access scam victim is likely to be a woman aged 65 or older
living in NSW. She will usually receive a phone call while at home and be scared or conned into providing remote access to her device.
Frequently, the call comes after a legitimate enquiry the victim has made about problems with, say, an NBN connection. Once the scammer has accessed their device, they may get into their bank account and transfer money out.
Reported losses from remote-access scams were $229 million in 2022.
2. Home maintenance
My 92-year-old aunt, who lives in a retirement village, has recently been targeted by a series of men wanting to check her showerhead to see if it is water efficient. She doesn't believe their spiel and won't let them into her small unit.
Scams generally involve promoting goods and services that are of poor quality or never turn up. Scammers may try to sell tree trimming or roofing services. They then bill for additional work that was not agreed to. They may also pretend to conduct a survey so they can get a person's personal details.
Another common scam is an email, call or text promising a refund or rebate from the government, bank or another well-known company.
The false promise of an inheritance can trick people into parting with their money or sharing their bank or credit card details.
5. Prizes and lottery
These scams operate by asking people to pay a fee to claim their prize or winnings from a competition or lottery they never entered.
6. Drug carriers
Older people are being tricked into acting as drug mules as a strategy to recover their losses from classic investment and inheritance scams, according to the Australian Federal Police and Australian Border Force.
"Criminal syndicates, by their very nature, exploit vulnerable communities and will undertake whatever tactics necessary to import drugs into our country," says AFP Commander Kate Ferry.
She says the victims of these online scams were often elderly and under significant financial hardship when they committed the crime.
"These criminals prey on the vulnerable and, at times, naive, and further victimise them by banking on the fact that they will do whatever it takes to recover their funds. The consequences for these victims can be severe, including lengthy terms of imprisonment."
7. Dating and romance
Lonely older people are perfect targets for romantic scams, often through dating websites, apps or social media. Pretending to be in love, the fraudsters use emotional triggers to ask for money,
gifts or personal details.
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