Your phone rings out of the blue. It’s an unknown number. Picking up, you hear a gruff, aggressive voice on the other end. They tell you that they’re from the IRS, your taxes are overdue, and if you don’t pay up in the next six hours you will be arrested.
This is a typical script for a scam call that many people hang up on regularly. However as we age, many of us become more susceptible to financial scams.
In 2021, more than 90,000 Americans over 65 were reported to have been victims of financial fraud, amounting to a total loss of $1.7 billion. And, this is likely underestimating the problem: Many more are embarrassed to come forward. Some older individuals are more susceptible to scams than others, and research suggests that there may be some correlation with a higher risk of developing Alzheimer’s or mild cognitive impairment as well.
A study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine assessed scam awareness in 935 cognitively healthy older adults, following up six years later to look at changes in cognition. Not everyone with low scam awareness developed Alzheimer’s, but it did prove to be a significant risk factor. Individuals who fell victim to fraud, the researchers found, were more than twice as likely to receive a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s or mild cognitive impairment after six years.
“This study backs up previous research by showing, unsurprisingly, that people whose thinking and reasoning skills are declining are at higher risk [to] potential con artists,” said Fiona Carragher, chief policy and research officer at Alzheimer’s Society.
When it comes to unsolicited phone calls, offers, or notices, take a “guilty until proven innocent” approach.
If you receive a phone call, never give out a credit card number, social security, Medicare, or bank information. If you need to verify whether the person on the phone is legitimate, take down their name and call the bank or government service yourself, directly, to inquire about the issue.
One of the most common scams involves texting or calling someone to inform them their computer has been hacked. From there, the “tech support” person asks the call recipient to buy gift cards in order to cover the cost of “antivirus” software. Don’t fall for this scam. If you’re concerned about your computer, reach out to a trusted and computer-savvy friend or family member.
If you receive an unsolicited notification or offering, the safest first reaction is to be suspicious. This could involve a notification that you won a prize, or someone telling you that they have a promising investment opportunity for you. They may also ask you to withdraw money from your bank and deposit it with them, or share personal data. Never do this.
Be wary of strangers you meet and/or communicate with online. Romantic scams are on the rise, and they’re not always easy to spot. If the person you’re in touch with claims to be in another geography or is wary of speaking face-to-face or over Zoom, that’s a good sign they may not be who they say they are — and they may have ulterior motives for engaging you.
If you’re a family member, spouse or caregiver, you can help your older loved ones avoid financial scams by watching out for warning signs. Additionally, if an otherwise healthy family member has fallen victim to fraud, it isn’t a bad time to book an exploratory screening appointment for mild cognitive impairment, which affects 12 to 18 percent of people over the age of 60.
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