I oversaw the care of an elderly friend in his last years. Up until age 86, Frank was pretty much in control. But then he was diagnosed with cancer. The disease and the drugs greatly sapped powers that old age had already altered. The telephone became his conduit to the outside world.
Scammers love people like him. As Frank’s friend and power of attorney, I soon learned the necessity of building a stockade between him and the armies of creeps.
The amount of money older Americans lose to financial abuse could be as high as $10 billion a year, according to M.T. Connolly, author of “The Measure of Our Age.” It’s a hard number to pin down, because many older people are too embarrassed to admit their gullibility to the authorities. Crimes against the elderly are known to spike right after the Social Security checks go out.
And the stress of knowing one’s been exploited takes years off their lives, according to a study at Weill Cornell Medical College. Some commit suicide.
I took over Frank’s affairs the day a neighbor called to report that an electric company truck was parked in front of his house. It turned out that his power was being turned off because he had stopped paying bills.
As I went through his finances, I found disturbing evidence of his being taken advantage of by home repair companies. For example, he had used a company that replaced windows but whose main business was trapping buyers in high-interest installment plans.
There was no crime. The windows were put in. And Frank had signed the contract. But would he have accepted this bad deal in his younger days? Doubtful. I had the loan immediately paid off.
While writing checks to Frank’s plumber, the cable company and so forth, I’d hear the phone ring seemingly every hour. He’d pick it up, and it became obvious that it was not anyone he knew, but I could hear from the warmth of the conversation that a connection was being made.
It was someone wanting money for a fund allegedly benefiting police. Frank would proudly say his family was fourth-generation law enforcement. The sturdy voice at the other end sounded like his people, except that they weren’t his people. It may have not even been people.
Calls raising money for police groups are the highest-volume phone messages in most major U.S. markets, according to Nomorobo, a call-blocking company. They are almost all super PACs whose operators pocket the money. That doesn’t make them illegal, according to the AARP. It depends on the wording of the message. The voice, by the way, is often a prerecorded response using soundboard technology.
Some scammers prey on the elderly in person. My aunt’s retirement community actually let one give a talk on annuities. He was a young man, who lied about having been wounded in the Iraq War. The widow of a World War II veteran, my aunt was charmed by this attentive fellow who proceeded to drain her savings. My brother got the money back after a long legal struggle.
Crooks are known to roam religious dating sites, such as Christian Mingle and JDate, preying on lonely older people. What looks like romance tied to faith turns out to be ruses to take their money.
The most dangerous abusers are often family members, whom the victim wants to trust. Children, nephews, sisters or whoever are known to groom isolated relatives to sign over their property to them. Or they simply worm into their accounts.
How can anyone with a conscience milk someone who is vulnerable and elderly? People do. It’s a sickness of our times.
Froma Harrop has worked on the Reuters business desk, edited economics reports for The New York Times News Service and served on the Providence Journal editorial board. She has written for such diverse publications as The New York Times, Harper’s Bazaar and Institutional Investor.