As a general rule – no, I take that back. As a hard and fast rule, never, ever fall for anyone offering free anything.
A mid-2010 survey by Investor Protection Trust revealed that 7.3 million older Americans – 20 percent of citizens over the age of 65 – had been victimized by a swindle.
And, according to the National Consumers League [pdf], elders in particular are mercilessly targeted for frauds and scams. The top five scams reported to their fraud center in 2010 were:
Fake Checks (29.67%)
Internet - General Merchandise (27.24%)
Prizes/Sweepstakes/Free Gifts (20.49%)
Advance Fee Loans, Credit Arrangers (2.44%)
Rounding out the top ten were timeshare resales, the Nigerian money offers, internet auctions, friendship and sweetheart swindles and scholarships/grants.
On the face of it, you would think everyone knows about the Nigerian email scam by now. After all, it's been going on for at least 15 years. But as new people take up computers, email and the internet – mostly elders coming to the party later than many of us – there are new marks every day.
The FBI keeps a special web section with good information about what kind of flimflams are common to elders and how to avoid them. The reason so many elders are targeted, they say, is that
• Elder are likely to have nest eggs, to own their homes and have good credit
• Elders are less likely to report being tricked out their money because they are ashamed or don't know how to or are afraid revealing the crime will lead relatives to believe they are no longer competent
• people who grew up in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s are generally more trusting and polite so less likely to just hang up the phone.
The FBI's pages of fraud alerts and explanations are extensive covering, among many others, scams involving investments, health care and insurance, counterfeit drugs, telemarketing and internet fraud, anti-aging products and identity theft.
Like me, you are probably convinced that you are too sharp, too smart and too aware to fall victim to a scam. Maybe that's so and maybe it isn't. But you probably have older relatives and friends who could use some help in this regard and, too, young people – maybe your grandchildren – are almost as vulnerable to fraud as elders.
However much we may think we can spot anyone trying to cheat us, maybe it won't be as easy to do someday. I like to believe that if I educate myself now while my mind is still in good working order, I will be better armed if I slip a few cogs in the future.
Below are some of the best educational resources about the many forms of fraud, how to avoid them and how to report them if you or someone you know becomes a victim.
FBI Elder Fraud Alerts pages (see above)
Do No Call Registry
This can cut down the number of telemarketing calls you receive. You can sing up at this link or check that you are still registered correctly. Currently, there is an announcement at the top of the page that some scam artists asking for your information to sign you up for the service.
North American Securities Administrators Association
List of securities and insurance regulators for every U.S. state to file complaints plus a lot of educational material about financial fraud
National Consumer League Personal Finance Section
Good coverage of many fraud topics – see links in right sidebar
Identity Theft Resource Center
Pretty close to everything you will ever need to know about how to protect yourself from identity theft
Consumer Protection for Seniors from usa.gov
A thorough list of links to consumer information and help for elders from a variety of government agencies
If Republicans in Congress were not refusing to fund the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau that Elizabeth Warren fought so hard for, all this information could be in one place.
At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Jackie Harrison: A Woman Who Knows Where She is Going