Fighting fraud

Most older adults are sharp and manage their finances well; but two factors make them targets

Financial scams continue to be aimed at elders and remain one of the most under-reported crimes of our time.

And the stakes are high: Multiple studies show that an estimated one in five seniors (ages 65 and older) have been victims of financial fraud — with an average loss of $36,000, according to Allianz Life.

The challenge is finding effective ways to empower seniors. Many of the “scold and scare” approaches to fraud-prevention education may actually contribute to under-reporting due to victims feeling ashamed.

Fortunately, LSS Financial Counseling has uncovered a new way make this topic more palatable with seniors during local fraud-prevention workshops — humor.

We wondered if embedding jokes, skits and stories into our sessions would help seniors talk about a difficult topic.

It worked. In every workshop, we heard new stories and laughs.

So far — thanks to grants from Allianz Life — LSS has led more than 60 workshops throughout the metro region, with more than 1,000 seniors attending.

Here are three important lessons about senior fraud prevention:

Ask questions 

Seniors are most targeted, but not because they’re naive.

Most older adults are sharp and manage their finances well; but two demographic factors make elders ideal targets.

First, seniors have the most assets, built over a lifetime of saving and investing. The famous crook Willie Horton, when asked, “Willie, why do you rob banks?” replied honestly, “Because that’s where the money is.”

Scammers aim for seniors for the same reason.

Second, seniors are from a generation of trust that believes in “giving people the benefit of the doubt.”

Scammers try to take advantage of this goodwill. Seniors can maintain this admirable trait, while becoming safer, if given tools to spot scams and ways to be assertive without losing their friendliness. We teach, “It’s not rude — it’s shrewd — to ask questions.”

This becomes even more important when facing “affinity fraud” where the scammer seems trustworthy because of affiliations such as religion or military service.

Learn the types of scams

Con artists have updated their playbook, so scams can come in every form, including over the phone, through the U.S. mail and via emails, seeking to lure people in with fake prize notifications, emergency calls claiming to be from a grandchild or “get rich quick” schemes.

One new scam is “debt buyers.”

This industry buys up old debts and has been caught many times calling people with similar names in hopes to get paid by all of them. If you get this call and don’t recognize the debt, tell the caller, “I need you to send me written proof of the debt.”

By law, they must stop any further calls unless they send written proof.

Always report fraud

There is redemption in reporting fraud.

Financial fraud is unbelievably under-reported, with only 1 in 100 senior victims ever reporting the crime, according to Investor Protection Trust, a nonprofit education and research organization.

It’s easy to imagine how someone might feel embarrassed or worried that family members might see such a misstep as proof of not being able to handle finances independently.

One of the most significant things we’ve learned, however, is the redemptive quality of reporting fraud.

Sometimes, reporting can lead to getting lost money back. Often times, reporting helps the authorities catch crooks and find patterns of theft, while also making victims feel they’re helping others stay safe.

Help stop scams by calling the Minnesota Attorney General hot line — 651-296-3353 — to report fraud and put scammers out of business.

Darryl Dahlheimer is program director at LSS Financial Counseling in Minneapolis. If your senior center or independent living campus or older adult group would like to host a senior fraud prevention workshop, contact LSS at 1-888-577-2227. Learn more about LSS at