Don’t let a grinch steal the joy of the season from an older person
Editorial by Tim Morstad
The typical Texan’s bank account takes a hit during the holidays, with gifts to give, parties to attend and travel to take on. But for far too many older Texans, the economic jolt felt this time of year takes on a more sinister meaning.
Already prone to experiencing loneliness and isolation during the holidays, older people also are prime targets of fraudsters during this festive period.
Whether it’s a scam perpetrated by a stranger or financial exploitation by a trusted source or relative, the impact goes far beyond the pocketbook and affects the physical and emotional health of the victim. Every year, abuse and exploitation rob older Americans of an estimated $3 billion — and this is only the amount reported.
During the holiday season, the financial stakes are great, with money exchanging hands and older adults in closer proximity to family. Many of us have heard about the “grandparent scam.” A year-round favorite of fraudsters, during the holidays it can come decorated with a special plea: a loved one in trouble and needing money to fix a car, get out of jail, or to make it home for the holidays.
And there’s the ever-popular “IRS scam,” which takes on a vicious twist in December and January. A caller threatens an elder with the possibility of arrest and spending the holidays in jail for unpaid taxes or a fake debt. Now is also when imposter charities surface, typically with a grinch making a sympathetic plea for year-end, tax-deductible donations.
Opportunities abound this time of the year to financially exploit a trusting elder. When a criminal takes advantage of an older person by forging a signature or coercing them to sign a will, it takes a toll on the physical and emotional health of the victim. These criminals may be a stranger, an aide who comes into the home, or someone else in a position of trust, like a family member. If you suspect someone you know is vulnerable to financial fraud or exploitation, take action. Keep an eye on your loved ones, their spending patterns and any new connections they may not want to talk about. AARP has good advice available online through its Fraud Watch Network at www.aarp.org/fraudwatchnetwork.
But remember, grinches don’t go away after the holidays; they operate year-round. That’s why AARP is fighting for new laws, policies and practices to crack down on abuse and financial exploitation, and seeks to strengthen protections for victims.
The Texas Legislature is exploring ways to curb financial exploitation of the elderly. When the new legislative session begins Jan. 10, AARP will support efforts to fight elder abuse and exploitation, including in the area of prevention. Local banks and credit unions can play a vital role in preventing and responding to elder financial abuse. That’s why AARP Texas is urging better training and reporting by financial institutions so that bank employees can spot and stop suspicious transactions before someone is scammed.
We also need to preserve and strengthen state Adult Protective Services (APS), which investigates complaints about financial exploitation of the elderly by individuals who have an ongoing relationship with the alleged victim. APS’ jurisdiction should be expanded to include the ability to investigate financial exploitation complaints against those without an ongoing relationship with the alleged victim.
And very importantly, we need to better support community coordination models. Victims of elder financial exploitation are often confused about where to turn for help. Fraud-fighting efforts like the Elder Financial Safety Center in Dallas are working successfully to prevent, protect and prosecute financial crimes. More of these community coordination models are needed in Texas.
Texas’ population age 65 and older is set to more than double from 2010 to 2030. This means more opportunities for scammers. But with education, vigilance and smart legislation, older Texans can be protected in the holiday season and year round.
Tim Morstad is an associate state director for AARP Texas, specializing in consumer and financial affairs.