Avoiding Scams, Abuse and Exploitation
For the great majority of older citizens who are still competent and capable of making business decisions, advice about avoiding scams, schemes and exploitation can be summarized in two sentences:
- If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
- Anything that has to be done in a hurry should raise suspicions.
It is unfortunate that senior citizens have to be wary of crooks, of aggressive marketers, and all too often of family members and acquaintances, but that is the grim reality, and we must be aware of the risks and possible ways to avoid being victims.
In recent years telephone and internet scams have become frequent. No person of any age should give out a social security number, bank account number, email address or any other personal information to anyone who requests it by phone or computer, unless you initiated the contact. For a more complete discussion of these kinds of scams, see the topic "Credit Cards" and "Identity Theft" on this web site.
Scams on the Street. A lot of criminal activity has shifted indoors to telephones and computers, but there are still some con artists operating on the streets. These are the crooks who supposedly “find” a sack of money or an expensive watch or some other valuable thing. They then locate a gullible person often an older person and suggest that they go together to the victim’s bank for a “deposit” on the money or other valuable, which the crook will “match”, as they conduct some related operation. Before it’s all over the “found” valuables will be gone, along with the crook and the victim’s money. The victim, thinking back on the silly tale that was told, wonders how in the world he or she could have been so foolish. Victims are often so embarrassed that they do not report the incident, leaving the crook to find another victim.
These things happen to smart people, not just those with mental impairments! These can be very slick operators. Also, an elderly person having a hard time stretching a limited income wants to believe in this windfall. Whether encountered on the street, on the telephone or by mail solicitation, slow down. Refuse to be hustled. If the deal has to be done today, let it go. That does not give you time for careful consideration. Just. Say. No.
If you do become a victim, as soon as you are aware that you have been taken advantage of, make a report to the police or sheriff’s office in your community. Do not be embarrassed; you are probably not the only victim, and if law enforcement officials are aware that a particular scam is being operated there may even be chance of apprehending the perpetrator.
Door to door sales. There was a time when legitimate businesses operated this way. Today, it is necessary to be suspicious of anyone who comes to your door unannounced to propose any kind of "deal". Well-established businesses do not operate that way. Never let such a person into your home. Not only do you open yourself to physical attack, you open your home to scrutiny, possibly paving the way for a later burglary.
Sleazy Business Practices.
Home Improvements. This is the major area of local business exploitation for our clients.
It is difficult to find responsible contractors to perform maintenance and improvements, especially on older homes. Do not settle for someone who does not have satisfactory recommendations and credentials, or about whom you do not have a good feeling from the beginning and do not pay in advance. Ask to see documentation of insurance coverage and business license. If a construction project is going to cost more than $10,000, the contractor must be licensed by the Alabama Home Builder’s Licensure Board, as well as by any county and city licensing authorities. You might want to find out about licensure if the contract is a large one, even if it is not for $10,000. You can contact the Home Builder's Licensure Board at (334) 242-2230, or at www.hblb.state.al.us.
Have a clear idea of what you want done and always get more than one estimate. Never sign any contract for extensive work on your home without reviewing it carefully before signing. Ask to keep a copy of any contract overnight at the minimum. If an agent is not willing for you to review the agreement carefully and have it reviewed by someone else, that should tell you something. If possible, take any contract that involves a substantial amount of money to your attorney for review as well. Call the City or County License Department to be sure the person is licensed to do business in your area. Ask to see evidence that the business is bonded and insured.
Unscrupulous “home improvement companies” sometimes persuade unsuspecting seniors to put mortgages on their homes in order to finance over-priced, poor quality work. If you do find yourself talked into such an arrangement, see an attorney immediately. The transaction may be one with a three-day cooling-off period during which you can cancel the contract.
In the past it was good practice not to pay anything up front, but it has become commonplace for even well-established contractors to ask for a third in advance for large jobs. If the contractor has the other credentials, and provides good references, this should be all right. But individual workmen may not be entitled to that much trust. Be cautious, and NEVER pay for the entire job up front.
It is acceptable to have an agreement to pay 1/4 or 1/3 (on materials for the job, not for basic tools) after supplies have been brought in., another fraction when the job is at least half-completed . You want to be fair to an honest contractor but you do not want to pay for a job that never gets done. Under no circumstances should you make the final payment until the work is complete and you have done a final inspection with the contractor or workman, so both of you know that the job is satisfactorily completed .
Taking out a mortgage to cover work done. Mortgaging a home to cover work done can be dangerous; many older consumers have lost their homes in deals of this kind. Never, never agree to a mortgage on your home without the advice of an attorney that you select and retain - not an attorney for the company or person encouraging you to enter into a mortgage. If you cannot afford an attorney, contact Legal Services, or the legal provider for the Area Agency on Aging in your area.
Other contracts. Before you sign any contract or purchase agreement that obligates you to pay back $250 or more over time, insist on seeing disclosure of the total cost, including any fees, handling charges and all interest that will be charged during the normal life of the agreement. Find out what will trigger penalties or past due charges and how many days of grace you will have. If a business cannot show you these figures, leave that deal alone.
The National Consumer Law Center and the Federal Trade Commission both offer many materials that can help in making decisions about consumer issues. Access these sites on our web site at Links, or go to www.nclc.org or www.ftc.gov.
Personal Exploitation and Abuse
Personal Exploitation. All too often, financial exploitation by family members is closely linked to misuse of credit cards and theft of identity. Other kinds of abuse can involve appropriating cash and real or personal property for personal use by the family member. The best protection against exploitation is maintaining a support network not only of family but also of friends and professionals who have some awareness of your circumstances and will notice when and if things do not seem right. (See related Consumer topics on this web site.) Protecting oneself from family members may be harder, but it starts with self-respect, watching your financial affairs, and being realistic about what is going on. Many older victims are aware of who has stolen or used a credit card, or forged a check, but will not deal with it. This does not help the thief, or the next victim. Once this kind of victimization starts, it is likely to only get worse.
Physical Abuse. Friends or family who suspect abuse of an older person are sometimes caught in a difficult situation. They do not want to intervene if the older person is simply difficult and paranoid, as sometimes happens in the early stages of dementia. Physical abuse is not always easy to spot. The very old often bruise easily and sometimes places that appear to be the result of blows are from natural causes. On the other hand, caring people do not want to wait to intervene until there is serious physical or emotional injury, or resources are exhausted.
Abuse. There are several kinds of abuse: physical, mental and financial. Any one can be disastrous. There are criminal and civil laws and procedures intended to protect older persons against abuse and to punish abusers. Sometimes, though, older persons are reluctant to ask for help because they are afraid of family members they must depend on.
If family members are reluctant to allow an elderly person in their care to have visitors or phone calls; if an older person appears uncharacteristically withdrawn; or if an older person living alone is clearly not keeping food in the home or otherwise being cared for by supposedly responsible persons, it is probably wise to contact the Department of Human Resources. Under the Adult Protective Services Act, DHR Social Workers can investigate the situation and determine if official intervention is appropriate, remove an abuser, move an older person from the situation, or find caregiving resources. The contact number for Adult Protective Services division is 1-800-458-7214.
When financial abuse is the problem, seniors often delay asking for assistance, until there is little hope of recovering the stolen asset. But if there is any chance at all of recovering some part of resources, legal action should be considered. Adult Protective Services can often help in such cases. Private attorneys or Area Agency on Aging legal providers can offer advice and assistance in some situations, but will often suggest contacting Adult Protective Services for possible investigation
Family members who believe another family member or acquaintance is exploiting a loved one can file a Guardianship or Conservatorship Petition in the Probate Court to place the incapacitated person or his/her assets out of reach of a potential abuser. Other resources to contact in the case of physical abuse are local law enforcement agencies, as well as Adult Protective Services.
The Stressed-out Caregiver. Sometimes abusive situations develop because an otherwise decent and responsible caregiver is stressed beyond endurance. Should that occur, family and friends must rally to provide respite care and relief for the welfare of the older person, the caregiver, and the family. It is easy to criticize but there is simply no way for anyone who has not cared for a demented or seriously ill loved one 24-7 to comprehend the pressures. That is true even when the caregiver would never describe the care as "a burden". It is a rare and remarkable caregiver who carries that load for any length of time without an outburst for which (s)he later feels great remorse. While most never crack to the point of physical violence, most honest caregivers will admit they do understand the impulse.
Home health care and custodial care providers cansometimes step in when there is no family close by to offer assistance. Most larger communities offer day care facilities for demented elderly persons, and those options should be explored. The local Area Agency on Aging is a good place to start. Occasional free days can make a big difference to caregivers and the patience they are able to marshal to do a job harder than anyone can imagine who has not experienced it.
Despite budget constraints, as of late 2009, the caregiver support program administered by Alabama Area Agencies on Aging was continuing. The program provides limited but welcome respite care and other services for caregivers of qualified persons needing care. Contact your local Area Agency on Aging for information and resources. (See Links, this web site, or call 1-800-AGELINE (1-800-243-5463).
An excellent resource for caregivers and other interested persons is How to Care for Aging Parents, by Virginia Morris, pub. by Workman Press. It offers ideas for families to work together to address issues of caregiver stress. Other good information can be found at www.alz.org, and www.caringinfo.org. Attending Alzheimer's and other support group meetings offers both social support and practical suggestions.