Older Americans Targets of Financial Fraud

America’s senior generation grew up in a different world. Earlier decades of the twentieth century were governed by courtesy, good manners, loving one’s neighbor as oneself, and trust in one’s fellow man. Today, these exemplary standards of conduct are getting seniors into trouble. Con artists, offering a wide variety of too-good-to-be-true investment “deals,” are banking on the willingness of older Americans to seal their shady scams with the proverbial handshake. Unfortunately, many seniors today are finding themselves in financial tight spots, making them more inclined to jump at the chance to “double” their money.

With today’s multitude of contact options, ranging from the phone to the Internet, scammers have virtually an unlimited number of “ins” when targeting victims. Common scams include e-mailed chain letters that are not only illegal, but also promise a pyramid of payoffs that always fall apart once the victim has bought into the system. Another common scam is one in which a Nigerian prince, doctor, or chief e-mails the victim and claims to need assistance transferring his riches to an American bank account. The victim is promised as much as 30% of the transferred millions and is asked to pay the perpetrator a fee to prove his or her honesty.

Fake charities are another common scam method. Kind-hearted donors are swindled into becoming victims by paying ridiculous sums to a cause that only benefits a con. Phone calls and paper mail are often used to offer individuals the chance to “win” the lottery or claim a sweepstakes prize. In the end, these supposed winnings only end up causing financial loss and heartache. Topping off all of these scams are fraudulent investment opportunities wherein the victim is promised fantastic returns on capital from “lucrative” oil and gas leases, penny stocks,  rare coins and metals, etc. The list is endless.

Too often, these scams go unreported because of the shame victims experience once they realize they have been had. And that’s just what scammers are banking on. The FINRA Investor Education Foundation teamed up with WISE Senior Services and the AARP to study this growing crime in a report entitled, “Off the Hook Again: Understanding Why the Elderly Are Victimized by Economic Fraud Crimes.” Several discoveries were made, including the typical psychological tactics cons use. These tactics increase cons’success rates and decrease the chances of them being reported. Victims may be led to believe that their only option is the one being presented in the scam, or the scammer may befriend the victim knowing full well that people are less inclined to ask friends hard-hitting questions. Another ploy is a request for help from the scammer tapping into the victim’s pity. Or the scammer may claim famous investors, like Donald Trump, are also buying into the property, or the product is in such high demand and so rare that the victim is lucky to have even heard about it in the first place.

Con artists may also use their assumed authority roles to coerce victims into letting the con make the decision for them; offer no-risk, guaranteed results; intimidate the victim by playing on his or her fears; or procure more and more payments by telling victims they are committed to the investment and must continue to invest in order to not lose the sums they have already paid.

On paper, these tactics might sound entirely see-through. But in person, they are too often extremely effective. The FINRA study also revealed that fraud techniques are often tailored to the psychology of the individual. Financial education, alone, will not be enough to put an end to senior fraud, since one of the study’s major findings indicated that senior fraud victims are more financially educated than non-victims and more willing to listen to sales pitches. In addition, victims are more likely to have experienced negative life events, such as job loss, divorce, or the death of a spouse.

Anyone approached with a “must-act-now” deal should take the time to walk away and do some research. Be skeptical, question why the offer is being made to you at that time, and contact the Better Business Bureau to learn more. Don’t waste time listening to cold-call sales pitches, and make sure to get second opinions from friends and family before taking action on any hot deal. In the end, follow the golden rule of thumb. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

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