Can Technology Protect Older Adults from Financial Fraud?

Older adults are perhaps the most at-risk demographic in the United States when it comes to financial fraud.

“Seniors are often targeted because they tend to be trusting and polite,” said FBI Special Agent in Charge Johnnie Sharp, Jr. in a press release published by the Department of Justice earlier this month. “They also usually have financial savings, own a home, and have good credit—all of which make them attractive to scammers.”

The U.S. Attorney’s Office and the FBI are working to raise awareness of the proliferation of the myriad online scams targeting older adults. In the press release, a handful of common scams are described, including the “grandparent scam” in which a criminal pretends to be a relative (usually a grandchild) in urgent need of money. In other scenarios, criminals pose as government employees, technology support representative, or potential romantic partners to trick older adults into divulging financial details.

How can older Americans avoid falling victim to these schemes? The FBI suggests maintaining an overall sense of caution when it comes to unsolicited phone calls, messages, or mail, as well as never providing any identifying information to strangers. It is also recommended that older adults never wire money to people they have only met online, and conduct research when considering whether or not a company is legitimate. But, of course, all of that is easier said than done. After all, according to the National Council on Aging, older adults lose approximately $3 billion each year to financial scams. These incidents can devastate lives, with people losing the savings they had been building up their entire lives.

To sidestep this turmoil, older adults can often turn to technology for assistance in cases of financial fraud. For instance, they can report scams online to the Federal Trade Commission in an attempt to hold scammers accountable. What’s more, start-ups have identified this market need, creating protective services for older adults facing potential financial abuse. One example is Maryland-based EverSafe, a subscription-based company that works to monitor older adults’ banking and credit accounts for red flags—like duplicate transactions, suspicious transfers, changes in spending, and identity theft—as well as scan the dark web for suspicious activities. Co-founded by COO Liz Loewy, who was formerly chief of the Elder Abuse Unit at the New York County District Attorney’s Office, EverSafe dubs itself a “second set of eyes” guarding older adults from fraud and theft.

New York-based Carefull conducts similar services, as does TrueLink; the latter offers older adults pre-paid Visa cards that are monitored by a third party (which can be a family member, care manager, or attorney). And implementing financial safety measures before a scam occurs is what Silver Bills aims to do; the company works directly with the New York City Department for the Aging to help older adults manage their bills and protect them from scams. That’s also what the Thinking Ahead Roadmap website is all about; it features technology that helps people through the process of choosing a financial advocate. Indeed, having a financial advocate, whether a professional one or a loved one, to manage money is a convenient way for older adults to avoid falling prey to online scammers.

But, with the National Adult Protective Services Association estimating that 90 percent of financial abusers are family members or other trusted people, perhaps older adults even need to be careful there. Last month, an elderly couple’s caretaker pled guilty to stealing $300,000 from them. And there have indeed been cases of adult children committing identity theft or other fraud against parents or grandparents; there are several online guides to spotting signs that “elder financial abuse” is occurring in the family.

Ultimately, today’s older Americans—especially those with smartphones—should be entering their senior years with a sense of attentiveness when it comes to the information they divulge to others, whether online or over the phone. The boomer generation has had to learn to embrace the Internet, smartphones, and other forms of technology at an older age (as compared to millennials and Gen Z-ers who grew up with an intrinsic understanding of it), and the online world has only become more convoluted. Thankfully, though, it also offers some protections for the country’s most vulnerable, with more and more technology businesses taking on the responsibility to help older adults evade fraud.

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