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Scams targeting older Americans are increasing — here's how to protect yourself and loved ones

How can you protect yourself from the spate of spams targeting older Americans?
Kelly Moffitt | St. Louis Public Radio
How can you protect yourself from the spate of spams targeting older Americans?

One in three Missourians are over the age of 60. That number is only set to increase in coming years. There’s also been a recent increase in the number of cons targeting older Americans – scammers fooling the group of people out of billions of dollars per year (yes, you read that right), often aided by digital technology.

On Tuesday’s St. Louis on the Air, we discussed the trends and scope of elder financial exploitation in the St. Louis region with members of the finance, police and aging advocacy communities. Each guest agreed: although scams are targeted at almost any age range, elder Americans are by far the most at risk for being duped by schemes novice and ingenious.

What is elder financial exploitation and how vast is the problem?

“It is people taking advantage of persons who may be lonely, persons who may have diminished capacity or persons who are taken by surprise,” said Mary Schaefer, the executive director of the Mid-East Area Agency on Aging. “These folks are extremely smart. It happens to everyone, not just older persons.”

Mary Schaefer, Mary Tucker and Sgt. Mike Parks joined St. Louis on the Air on Tuesday.
Credit Kelly Moffitt | St. Louis Public Radio
Mary Schaefer, Mary Tucker and Sgt. Mike Parks joined St. Louis on the Air on Tuesday.

Mary Tucker, a manager of elder client initiatives at Wells Fargo Advisors in St. Louis, said that her office has seen a 25 percent increase in the past two years in the cases of elder financial exploitation.

“We get calls constantly about scams targeting the elderly or caretakers taking advantage of the elderly,” said Sgt. Mike Parks, the supervisor of the Division of Criminal Investigation in the St. Louis County Police Department. “It is a growing concern in not just St. Louis County but throughout the region.”

What does this exploitation look like?

Scams targeting the elderly run the gamut from emails sent to their inboxes claiming a loved one is out of the country and needs money to someone calling on the phone offering computer services … for a price, said Parks. His department also hears a lot about relatives or caretakers who have taken control of an older person through power of attorney.

Tucker said her line of financial work is seeing an increase in exploitation from family members more than anyone else because they have access to retirement accounts and long-term savings plans.

Schaefer said there is a difference in scams perpetrated by family members, who gets into your finances by proximity and closeness, versus an unknown entity who uses clever tactics to gain entry into your financial data.

People take advantage by capitalizing on older American’s loneliness, using services such as Facebook or dating websites to lure money out of the victim.

“There’s been a statistical bump in the susceptibility of women in their late 60s, early 70s who are recently divorced or widowed and they get on dating sites and people convince them they can get married without having met,” Tucker said.

Likewise, scammers can search social media websites for personal information about their target to make them feel that closeness. This often happens with email or phone scams claiming a relative is out of the country and needs money wired to them in order to survive.

How to protect yourself from scams:

Advice from our guests:

  • Have multiple people involved in your power of attorney decisions so one relative or caretaker cannot have sole influence on your financial decisions.
  • Do not allow yourself or your loved one become isolated. Isolation is vulnerability. Schaefer recommended visits to the Mid-East Area Agency on Aging’s 21 senior center locations across the region to keep people connected and sharing what’s going on at home.
  • Keep an eye out for language that implies you need to share money immediately and untraceably. Urgent language is the largest red flag for people worrying about scams.
  • Scammers are often looking not just for financial transactions, but also personal information. Once they have their victim hooked with a credit card number, they will also endeavor to get personal details out of them, like birth date or social security number.

What to do if you fear you’ve been scammed:

One in nine American have been victims of financial exploitation, said Schaefer, and most of that goes unreported because of embarrassment. Schaefer said it is imperative that people who have been exploited report that exploitation to the police and/or an elder abuse, neglect and exploitation hotline. Missouri’s hotline is 1-800-392-0210, where you can report anonymously of suspected abuse or give a full report.

The Mid-East Area Agency on Aging also has a full list of resources regarding elder abuse here

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary EdwardsAlex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region. 

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Kelly Moffitt joined St. Louis Public Radio in 2015 as an online producer for St. Louis Public Radio's talk shows St. Louis on the Air.