Tips for Protecting Older Relatives and Friends from Telephone Scammers

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Older adults are frequent targets of schemes to swindle people out of their money. The FBI reports that 92,371 older adults were victimized by fraud in 2021. They lost $1.7 billion, a 74% increase from 2020.

Many older adults have accumulated substantial savings that attract financial scammers. Regardless of their wealth, older adults are seen as inviting targets because many victims don’t want their families to know they were duped. When victims don’t report crimes, they make it easy for criminals to get away with fraudulent schemes.

Most scams are conducted by telephone. Criminals pretend to be the older person’s grandchild asking for money, or a government employee demanding payment of unpaid taxes. Swindlers may demand Social Security numbers and other personally identifying information to facilitate identity theft. They ask for advance payment of processing fees to secure sweepstakes winnings or demand settlement payments for nonexistent lawsuits.

Scammers also target seniors with offers for emergency alert bracelets and other products that appeal to older adults. While the goods might be delivered, the monthly payments that have been authorized on a debit card never end.

How do adult children help their parents avoid being victimized by financial fraud? It isn’t easy, particularly if criminals realize that an older adult has been swindled in the past. Here are a few ideas that might reduce the risk of being cheated by scammers.

Call Screening

The easiest way to avoid being duped by a caller is to screen calls. A caller’s telephone number is displayed on incoming cellphone calls. If the number is in the phone owner’s contact list, the caller’s name is also displayed. If no name is associated with an incoming call and the phone owner doesn’t recognize the number, the safest practice is to ignore the call.

Seniors are more likely than younger people to have landlines. Telephone companies charge a fee for caller ID, but the investment allows the phone owner to see an incoming phone number on a landline telephone that is designed to display caller ID information.

Unfortunately, many older adults find it difficult to ignore a ringing telephone. They might protect themselves by screening landline calls with an answering machine. A senior who recognizes the caller can answer the phone before the caller finishes leaving a message.

Screening is not infallible. Many people answer calls from numbers they don’t recognize because they are afraid they might miss an important call. While some scammers won’t leave an answering machine message, a crook who has done his research might begin a message with “Grandma, this is Joey. I’m in trouble and I need your help. Can you pick up?” If the phone owner is fooled, the scam is in play.

While careful screening is a good starting point, other strategies are essential for older adults who want to protect themselves from fraudulent schemes.

Robocall Remedies

Many scams are conducted by robocalls. A robocall is any call that is dialed by an automated dialer. If the dialed number is answered, the automated dialer will play a recorded message or transfer the call to a live person who makes a fraudulent pitch.

With a few exceptions (primarily for political campaigns, debt collectors, and charitable organizations), robocalls are illegal. Adult children should encourage their parents to write down a caller’s number if they hear a pause before a real person comes on the line. They should also hang up after verifying that the robocall is unlawful.

Robocalls should be reported to the state Attorney General. The Attorneys General from nearly every state recently joined together to sue a telecommunications company that facilitated billions of fraudulent robocalls.

Many lawyers specialize in bringing legal action against robocallers. Successful litigation results in payment of the attorney’s fee by the offending caller and damages of at least $500 per call.

Unfortunately, most swindlers use a false identity to obtain a telephone number. They abandon the number after a short time, moving their fraudulent activities to a different number. That makes it difficult for lawyers to track down criminals who make robocalls. To the extent that salesmen use robocalls, however, contacting a lawyer may be a wise investment of a senior’s time.

Do Not Call Registry

Older adults who don’t want to be bothered by telephone calls from strangers can add their names and telephone numbers to the Do Not Call Registry. Legitimate telemarketers have an incentive to avoid fines by making sure that a telephone number is not on the list before dialing it.

Unfortunately, criminals don’t care about the Do Not Call Registry. Adding a phone number protects against the annoyance of unwanted telephone calls from most telemarketers, but it offers no protection from fraudulent schemes.

Call Blocking

Older adults who suspect that a call is from a scammer can hang up and block the number to prevent additional calls. Call blocking is a feature on nearly every cell phone. Calls to landlines can be blocked by dialing *60 and following the prompts to enter the number that the phone owner wishes to block. Unfortunately, that strategy only works if the landline telephone is capable of displaying the numbers from which incoming calls originated.

Call blocking is unlikely to deter determined scammers. After criminals identify the potential victims of scams, they are relentless in their efforts to steal their target’s money. Dedicated criminals have multiple phone numbers and change them regularly. They also have the means to spoof numbers and identities to make it seem that calls are originating from a legitimate company. Call blocking is a tiresome chore that is too easily defeated.

Block All but Preapproved Numbers

The daughter of a woman who was deluged with calls from scammers came up with a solution that she admits is extreme. Instead of blocking specific numbers, she had her telephone company block all calls unless they were on a list of preapproved numbers.

This strategy is relatively easy for mobile phone users. While different manufacturers use different procedures to activate the option, cellphones generally offer a Do Not Disturb option that blocks all calls from numbers that aren’t on the phone owner’s contact list. To assure that they do not block calls they want to receive, seniors should make sure that their contact list is complete and up to date.

Landlines are trickier. Some telecommunications companies offer the option to block all incoming calls from numbers that are not preapproved, but they might allow customers to preapprove fewer than two dozen numbers. Seniors with many friends, family members, and healthcare providers might find the phone company’s option to be too limiting.

Automatic call blocking can also block important calls. A doctor’s office, for example, might have several telephone numbers. If a senior is blocking all unrecognized numbers, it is important to tell the doctor’s office that it should always call the senior from the same number.

Seniors can also purchase a call blocker that prevents numbers from connecting to a landline unless they are preapproved. While features vary, some call blockers come preprogrammed with thousands of numbers of telemarketers that are automatically blocked. Owners can add to that list. Most devices also allow owners to “whitelist” trusted numbers while allowing the owner the option of blocking unrecognized numbers.

No solution is perfect. Efforts to protect seniors from fraudulent telephone calls can be burdensome. Choices involve tradeoffs between the risk of being victimized and the risk of missing important calls. The right choice may depend upon the senior’s ability to screen calls and to hang up on suspicious callers.

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