Friend or Foe? Protecting Yourself from Scammers
Farrah Hughes, PhD, ABPP
Many who want to live happy, fulfilling lives seek companionship and romance in their golden years. In fact, to be physically and emotionally healthy, it is essential that humans experience connection with others. We may seek connection with those around us, or we may venture into the online world to meet new people. Online encounters can occur on dating websites like OurTime.com and SilverSingles.com, social media outlets such as Facebook and Instagram, or while playing games like Words with Friends, Farmville, or ScrabbleGo. However you meet people, it is important to be cautious and to protect yourself against fraud.
According to the U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), older Americans who are exploited by others lose an average of $34,200. The CFPB reported that in 2017, reports of suspicious financial activity involving older adults totaled over $1.7 billion. In about half of these cases, it was reported that strangers were responsible for the exploitation. In a third of cases, the predator was a trusted person or family member.
Senior citizens are targets for scam artists for a number of reasons. Often, they have a “nest egg,” own their home, and have excellent credit – all these factors make seniors appealing to predators. Plus, many seniors are seeking companionship. If they are lonely, they are especially vulnerable to predators.
Based on my experiences with seniors who have been victimized, predators and scam artists often come as wolves in sheep’s clothing. Things might unfold like so:
- The scam artist might befriend you, express concern for you and your well-being, and even indicate romantic interest. Often, these types of predators will spend many weeks or months developing a relationship with you. Their stories may involve other people, such as relatives and friends who also begin communicating with you. These communications might come from seemingly valid email addresses or social media profiles, so they appear trustworthy. However, they often are not. They are characters created to be part of the story; they might not even be real people, but are rather fictitious people created by the scammer.
- Over time, these scam artists spin quite an interesting yarn. Their life stories can seem fascinating and interesting. For example, they may be “working overseas” or traveling for their “shipping business.” They will likely make promises to visit you, or they will send you trinkets to prove that they are genuinely interested in you and to keep you interested in them. They will mention large amounts of money in their conversations in an attempt to further lure you in, to make you think that they are financially secure and even wealthy.
- Based on my observations, seniors become most vulnerable when the predator encounters trouble of some sort. The scam artist might indicate that they became stranded during their travels, for example, and you are the only person who can come to their aid. It all seems so innocent. They pull at your heart strings. If you have a large savings account, retirement fund, or other assets, it might not seem like a big deal to send a thousand dollars or so to help out.
- As time goes on, the scam artist’s stories become even more fantastic, and the requests for financial assistance keep coming, all with the promise that when you are finally together they will pay you back in full. This person never actually comes to visit, and they eventually stop communicating with you completely. They cannot be located or traced, so you have no recourse for legal action or fraud assistance.
Please do not fall victim to such a scheme. I have seen bright, well-educated persons become victims out of a desire to help others and a yearning for companionship. Your savings and retirement funds are yours; you need them, and you must safeguard them. Here are some tips to help prevent you from falling victim:
- Never give others access to your banking or retirement accounts.
- Safeguard all account numbers, PINs, and passwords.
- Do not share your full birthdate or social security number.
- Do not send money to someone whom you do not know, or whom you have not met in person. When in doubt, talk about any requests for money with a trusted friend, family member, pastor, or counselor. It is better to be safe than sorry.
- Do not let embarrassment or shame prevent you from seeking guidance. The sooner you reach out to someone for a second opinion, the better.
If you have experienced such fraud in your search for companionship or romance, know that it is okay to get help and support. You are not alone! You may feel embarrassed or ashamed, but please know that many others feel the same way. What you have learned may save you from future scams.
For more information about fraud:
- FBI Scams and Safety Site – https://www.fbi.gov/scams-and-safety/common-scams-and-crimes/seniors
- AARP Fraud Watch Network – https://www.aarp.org/money/scams-fraud/
Farrah Hughes, PhD, is a licensed clinical psychologist and serves as the director of Behavioral Health Services at HopeHealth. She is happily married to her best friend and together they have two children. She is a member of the American Psychological Association, the Collaborative Family Healthcare Association, and the Society for Couple and Family Psychology.