How To Protect Susceptible Relatives From Scams

The Wall Street Journal ran an article yesterday about how to identify and protect loved ones from con artists. One of the problems with being an easy mark—say, because of reduced mental capacity or increasing isolation—is that you get put on a list and passed around to other scammers, says Karen Blumenthal, the author of the piece and a relative of one of these perpetually easy marks.

Her relative, a recent widower, started off by sending checks for $30 or less for fake lotteries and sweepstakes. Eventually he fell for a $4k check fraud scam, and then later sold his car and wired that money to another scammer.

For months, family members wrestled with what to do. When confronted, our relative would acknowledge he had been ripped off and promise it would end — but then he would succumb again, a pattern experts say is common.

The debate ended this spring when our relative, unable to cash out his life-insurance policy, was conned into selling his car and wiring $4,000 to Costa Rica. In May, with his three children and a stepson present, he acknowledged to a judge that he had been financially scammed. The judge granted guardianship to two of his children, taking away his right to manage his own affairs.

The family went to lunch with him, then dismantled his cellphone and redirected his mail to another state. A few hours later, he demanded his phone back. He wanted to call some “friends” who had some money waiting for him.

One thing that becomes clear from her relative’s behavior, as well as from this New Yorker profile on a psychotherapist who fell for scams repeatedly, is that regardless of mental capacity, some people seem far more likely to fall for the same cons over and over no matter how rationally you explain the techniques to them. The WSJ has a sidebar that provides some tips on how to help protect these high-risk people, including:

  • Provide a printed script to use with telemarketers and leave it by the phone;
  • re-route all mail to a post office box and go through it with the recipient;
  • change the victim’s phone number;
  • find other activities to fill up the victim’s time so s/he doesn’t feel as compelled to engage with friendly scammers (they’ll spend countless hours grooming the mark to think of them as friends).

They also point out that AARP has a toll-free number you can call— 1-800-646-2283 —to report fraudulent activity, as well as a special website called AARP Fraudfighters.

“A Family’s Fight to Save an Elder From Scammers” [WSJ] (Thanks to Joanne!)
(Photo: m4rpk)


Edit Your Comment

  1. RStui says:

    This is so sad to me. I’m glad I come from a cynical and frugal family.

    Also, this was the focus of last night’s rerun of CSI!!

    • GuJiaXian says:

      @RStui: I agree…I read the article and was left feeling terrible for the conned old man.

    • Eyebrows McGee (now with double the baby!) says:

      @RStui: I know, this makes me almost weepy.

    • theodicey says:

      @RStui: The scammers got to my very cynical and (relatively) frugal grandmother.

      Senility takes your rationality away. Having a rich social life, friends or partners is protective. Attitude isn’t.

  2. dragonfire81 says:

    Are there certain people that just CAN’T be saved from themselves? I’ve always felt that if someone is determined enough to do something, they’ll usually find a way.

    • alexawesome says:

      @dragonfire81: Yes, there definitely are those people. It’s very sad, but I think we have a cultural responsibility to do our best to protect them from themselves. It’s a really hard line to gauge, though, because at what point are you doing the right thing, and at what point are you infringing on someone else’s freedoms and rights? Such a tough and complex dilemma. Very sad. I’m glad I haven’t had to deal with it first hand (yet).

      • CumaeanSibyl says:

        @alexawesome: Culturally speaking, it’s also to everyone’s benefit to keep scammers from making a profit. The more money they make, the better able they are to put up a legitimate-looking front, allowing them to defraud people who aren’t easily taken in by the obvious fly-by-night folks.

        • alexawesome says:

          @CumaeanSibyl: I’m not sure what your comment has to do with mine, I’m sorry. I guess it’s just because it sounds like you’re disagreeing with me? I’m definitely not saying that we should allow people to be taken in, but at the same time, I’m uncomfortable with the idea of confiscating an adult’s phone and forcing them to come to me about all financial decisions. It’s a very difficult line to identify, much less know when it’s been crossed. I don’t envy anyone who has to make such a painful decision about a loved one.

    • RogerTheAlien says:

      @dragonfire81: What gets me, though, is that this gentleman admitted to having been scammed, then proceeded to re-engage in the activities that, admittedly, had robbed him of money. This seems less like a senility issue, and more like something mental, something more addiction-like. Unless the man has short-term memory loss (which is potentially true), it would seem there’s something more at work then just a desire to make money. Perhaps some sort of chemical imbalance.

    • Difdi says:

      @dragonfire81: My Mother is like that. Only she doesn’t fall for scammers precisely, she just has a deep and absolute confidence that corporations truly do have her best interests at heart (why else would they be in business?)

      She doesn’t take precautions, she doesn’t keep receipts, when she catches someone ripping her off through an act of corporation, she is more like to let them do it, and complain later, than she is to object on the spot (and she rarely keeps any documentation that would prove her case…she generally throws it away on the way home to cool down prior to filing a protest).

      Everyone in the family has tried and tried to get her to at least apply common sense…but she insists on seeing every corporation as a monolithic entity that only wants to help her. No matter how many times she gets screwed.

  3. RandomHookup says:

    Seem to be some of the same patterns found in those who bet heavily on the lottery.

    • redskull says:

      @RandomHookup: I’ve always figured my odds of winning the lottery are the same whether I play it or not.

    • ganmerlad says:

      @RandomHookup: It hit me from reading this, and part of the New Yorker article, that people who keep ‘falling’ for these scams have a gambling problem. It is the same mental mechanism I bet.

    • RecordStoreToughGuy_RidesTheWarpOfSpaceIntoTheWombOfNight says:

      @RandomHookup: Except the proceeds for most lotteries go to help fund education, so there’s at least some benefit.

      • Pixel says:

        @RecordStoreToughGuy: In CT all the lottery funding was supposed to go to education, that was how they got it passed in the first place.
        A few years later the legislators noticed how much money the schools were getting, and decided they wanted to be able to “spread the wealth” a bit, and changed it so the money went into the general fund, but promised the schools would get all they needed.
        Now the schools are underfunded and the money is being wasted on all sorts of nonsense.

  4. Ihaveasmartpuppy says:

    I was raised to be frugal and cynical by my Mom. I always remember her trusting nobody and never wasting her money, she was very strict. My Dad died 3 years ago and now she’s lonely. She keeps buying all sorts of crap (like 2 Amish Fireplaces) and services and I just know it’s going to go the way of the man in the story. I keep warning her but living 500 miles away there’s only so much I can do. Take a look at who this happens to, it’s always the lonely and scared. I think the last tip listed in the article about keeping the person busy is the key to any success in keeping them out of trouble.

    • TouchMyMonkey says:

      @Ihaveasmartpuppy: And I guess you can’t convince her to move in with you, either (so you can keep her company and keep your eye on her). That scares the shit out of me because my parents aren’t getting any younger, either. Mom’s pretty level-headed, but if she lost Dad, I couldn’t guarantee she wouldn’t go the same way. Good thing two of her sons live in the same city.

    • kaceetheconsumer says:

      @Ihaveasmartpuppy: I was raised like you, but wouldn’t be suprised to have a similar outcome.

      I absolutely agree with the hobby thing. Even with some hobbies being prone to addictive spending (ask most knitters about their yarn stash, or beaders how much they’ve spent on one fancy storage system after another, and oh dear [deity] do not even go near the closet/cupboard of a scrapbooker or the avalanche might kill you), at least that’s all actual STUFF that can be used some day by someone. And most hobbies these days have groups that meet to add a social aspect. Check for groups for a million interests.

    • magstheaxe says:

      @Ihaveasmartpuppy: I read an interview with an elderly man some years ago who’d got taken in some telephone scams (not foreign lottery, but something else). He said that all of his family had moved away, his wife and closest friends were all dead, and the only people in his life that were his friends were the guys that called him on the phone. He gave them money so that they’d continue to call and talk to him.

      The lonliness thing is the biggest part of these problems, IMO. As a society,we’re too willing to let the elderly just sit at home alone. That contributes to diminished mental and emotional capacity, and makes them vulnerable to scamming.

  5. Canino says:

    you get put on a list and passed around to other scammers

    Where can I get this list?

    On a more serious note, my grandparents were never taken by scams even though they were targeted. They trusted no one with money. Ronald Reagan could have shown up at their door selling gold bars for a nickel and they wouldn’t have bought any because he was a door-to-door salesman.

  6. farcedude says:

    My girlfriend’s grandfather fell for these sorts of things, and they still get calls from people who have their phone number (he passed away a number of years back).

  7. Trencher93 says:

    I always wonder how gullible people have any money left if it’s that easy to scam them.

    Maybe this is just a symbiotic relationship. These people need to give money to scammers who take it. Both parties apparently benefit. Can’t someone get a tax break for this?

    • econobiker says:

      @Trencher93: Usually the person is feeble,unaware of a change in technology, or from a generation who believed that bank accounts and checks were absolute.

      These are probably the same people who wouldn’t give money to local charities but fall prey to a slick con man/woman working them over…

  8. whim17 says:

    My mom has MS, which has affected her far more mentally than it has physically. She’s the type who would fall for these scams very easily.

    One thing that she’s done is to set up her phone so that it only accepts phone calls from numbers that are designated in advance. If someone tries to call from an unknown phone number, her phone just doesn’t ring on her end. It was annoying when I moved around so much, and every time I got a new phone number I had to call a family member to call her to tell her to put the number in, but overall the trade-off is certainly worth it.

    • floridamom says:

      @whim17: I have MS too and some of the many, many medical bill collectors confuse me like crazy. A family member found that I paid thousands over time for a debt that one of the insurance companies had paid.

      We’re working on ways to make sure I don’t get in $$ trouble again but it’s not easy. One thing I’ve done is ask anyone who calls to put their request in writing. They are so reluctant to do so.

  9. Shoelace says:

    Tell your relatives to call you BEFORE giving money or any personal information to people they don’t know who ask for it. Make it clear this is a ‘doesn’t matter what’ situation – that scammers specialize in getting people to trust them or to feel hurried or intimidated, and they (the relatives) always need to check with you first.

  10. econobiker says:

    There is some information that the murder of a young preacher and father of three young children in Selmer TN by his wife was due to her kiting checks for these types of scams and him finding out about it. She got off relatively easy because she played the abused/controlled spouse card.

  11. Patrick Floto says:

    Many may curse the introduction of MMOs, but I think they are something the elderly really should get into.

    They will be too focused running 6 hour raids and leveling up their toons to waste time writing checks to scammers. All for the low price of 30 bucks a month.

  12. Julia789 says:

    My relative with early onset Alzheimers had this problem. Her condition (sadly at only age 55) made her very sweet and compliant to anyone. She happily would have given you the keys to her car if you only asked for it. Her brain was turning to applesauce. While she was still living at her home, she gave lots of money to anyone who came to the door selling anything, roofing scams, chimney scams, driveway paving scams, etc. Probably the same guys came back over and over again. We had to get a court order to put her in a nursing home. She was out of her mind. She started parking her car in the middle of the street or on the front lawn instead of the driveway. She is now in a coma in a nursing home on a surgically implanted feeding tube. I could just kill the people who took advantage of her. They could tell she was not speaking normally and just kind of wandering around.

    • 1234tu says:

      @Julia789: I could just kill the people who took advantage of her. They could tell she was not speaking normally and just kind of wandering around.

      I’m with you. These people are even worse than the 419 scammers. Atleast the people targeted by the Nigerians are guilty of greed. Elderly people who are scammed by the home repair scum are just motivated to keep their homes up.

  13. pecan 3.14159265 says:

    I think the elderly fall victim to these scams because the scammers are extremely savvy. They can be very convincing, and they can run circles around an elderly person who may not be in the sharpest of mental capacities.

    It’s sad that the children now have to “parent” the parent, but it has to be done for everyone’s safety, especially the parent or grandparent. I sympathize with the people in the article because they really didn’t want to take away their relative’s rights and freedoms, but he was being compulsively irresponsible. Taking away his cell phone was the last straw, and while he might not have much contact with the outside world anymore, it was for the best.

    Something the article mentions is that the elderly are often lonely, and form a relationship with these scammers, as if they were “friends”…It’s quite sad, and you can’t blame the kids or grandkids because everyone has responsibilities of their own. A good tip there was to involve the elderly in friendships with real people who are like them, and hopefully they’ll find real people to talk to, people who will come to care about each other. It’s like the elderly who call hot lines just to talk – they mean no harm, but they get lonely and they want to talk to someone.

    • nicolebuckingham says:

      @pecan 3.14159265: Keep dreaming. The sad reality is that American culture doesn’t value older citizens so we don’t have many community centers or programs that help connect the elderly with others or incorporate them into our youth-focused culture. By the looks of entertainment, you’d think Americans spontaneously drop off the earth at 40!

      To add to this, so much space in developed areas of this country are privatized that gathering places are limited (except maybe in the most major cities like NY or SF). Most of the places Americans gather are privately-owned (think bookstores, the mall). The only exception is prob places of worship.

      Finally, another elephant in the rooms is that American communities are grossly stratified and segregated by race, nationality, ethnicity, and religion. The fear of allowing “others” to cross these boundaries has greatly affected the landscape and development of American cities, their public spaces, and transportation (think Atlanta’s broken MARTA system–the product of white Atlantan’s fear to expand in the 70s and 80s because of white flight and black threat). I think this adds to the lack of public spaces or programs that could eliminate this type of loneliness and isolation.

      You sound compassionate, but this is just reality.

      • pecan 3.14159265 says:

        @nicolebuckingham: When you factor that a great deal of the elderly are actually very sharp, mentally, you don’t really need a lot of control or gathering spots….book clubs, sports teams, fishing groups, those are all ways the elderly can stay active, and it’s not about the government sponsoring anything or old folks’ home sponsoring anything.

        In contrast to “American culture doesn’t value older citizens” a lot of people mention Asian culture, which places a stern obligation upon the children to take care of their parents and grandparents – almost to the point in which it becomes absolute obligation, and oppressive toward a family.

        American culture places a lot of importance on individuality, and individual families – Asian culture places a lot of importance on the whole, the good of the whole benefits the good of the one – which I don’t necessarily adhere to, because I’ve seen what “the good of the whole” has done to Asian families that adhere to the traditions of obligatory parenting.

        I think the best course of action to help individual families is to keep at the task – keep the elderly active, and keep the education going, so that hopefully, some people might be rescued from scammers.

        • nicolebuckingham says:

          @pecan 3.14159265:
          Did you even read my post? I never said anything about the government sponsoring anything. I am talking about public space. Public space. That simply means the space (whatever the space may be…park, big empty building, a beach) is not owned by an individual or company. It is public so a group can gather there if they like. In some places in America, these types of spaces do not exist and they are becoming more and more scare as private companies and individual acquire more land ownership. In my home town, for example, older people were forced to form walking clubs that went to malls…malls! because we didn’t have any parks or trails. The malls eventually got tired of the group as it grew (and they didn’t buy anything…they just walked and talked in their sweat pants). IMO that’s a problem.

    • BytheSea says:

      @pecan 3.14159265: Often it’s better to get lonely grandma to sell her home and move into a retirement facility. instead of being home alone all day, she’s essentially in a college dorm without the class and slightly less keg stands. There’s bingo and church and other activities to get them to meet each other, or just mutually sitting on the porch and staring outside, which i understand is an elderly competitive sport. My grandma was living with my aunt and uncle and utterly alone and depressed, and now she’s the belle of the ball again, with a ton of friends. She’s a little scary, frankly; if she doesn’t like dinner that day, her entire table complains. It’s like high school.

  14. Possinator says:

    You could always scam your relatives first that way there’s nothing left when the other scammers come.

  15. Brontide says:

    I never give money at the door or on the phone…. my wife did one to her alumni association.. $20 and they won’t leave her alone. Then again I hang up on solicitors, scammers, and surveys. I can’t tell you how many calls I’ve received from “Card services” scammers, but it’s a lot.

    Then again, for the most part, just say no. Be it a scammer or an upsell, you probably don’t need it and are wasting money on it.

    • pecan 3.14159265 says:

      @snowmoon: I haven’t given anything to my alumni association, and they won’t leave me alone! They’ve called three times in two weeks! And I know it’s students who are working the phones, so I feel bad about being really frustrated because they deal with this a lot, and they’re just students trying to make some money… but I really don’t want to give you any money!

  16. ngwoo says:

    A good technique to get someone to stop doing this is to let them keep doing it until they are starving on the streets. Then they’ll realize what happened.

    • RecordStoreToughGuy_RidesTheWarpOfSpaceIntoTheWombOfNight says:

      @ngwoo: A modest proposal, but a fair one.

    • HogwartsAlum says:


      Not if they have cognitive issues, like Julia789’s relative with Alzheimer’s, or whim17’s mom with MS.

      In CA, I lived for a time in a residential hotel downtown. It was a really nice place – you had to have a recommendation to get in there – and most of the people were older. Many of them had literally no one. Family members die or fall out of touch, children move away, friends too. It was sad and for those with mental issues, without someone to look after them, they were easy prey for con artists.

    • misslisa says:

      @ngwoo: No, then they’ll just move in with you.

  17. rhys1882 says:

    The question is, at what point does it go from simply being gullible to a mental disorder that warrants awarding someone else guardian ship. To me, falling for the same scams over and over is definitely a question of mental capacity. The fact that a person is functional in all other regards is irrelevant. Many cases of severe OCD involve people who can function completely normally except for the specific obsession they have, which may not even manifest itself that frequently. It may be a mental break that only occurs briefly at rare times, but if it is enough to substantially impair their life something needs to be done.

    • zekebullseye says:

      That’s why it’s so difficult. There’s a lot of subtlety involved. You have to protect people and yet not infringe on their civil rights.

  18. BytheSea says:

    This makes me so sad. My grandma gives reasonable amounts to charity and they put her on mailing lists so that she gets 3-5 pieces of mail a day asking for more charity money from all sorts of causes. She feels really badly that she can’t give to all of them. We tell her that they send these letters to everyone and that her name is on multiple mailing lists, but she doesn’t understand how modern communications business work.

    I don’t entirely understand how elderly people continue to fall for these scams over and over again. But otoh, I have seen how they are childlike in their concern for others and lack of foresight for themselves. Also, their mindset is in a much older time, when businesses weren’t pure evil. They trust people because in their day, only strangers in trench coats who live under a bridge would treat people the way scammers who call them up treat them.

  19. 1234tu says:

    That is an amazing story! I wish I could understand what he was thinking… wow