How to Protect Your Elderly Parents From Being Scammed

It can be a challenge, but it’s wise to discuss with your parents their susceptibility to crime and ID theft.

It can be a challenge, but it’s wise to discuss with your parents their susceptibility to crime and ID theft
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From a young age, your parents taught you to be aware of stranger-danger. If you have elderly parents, you may have noticed the irony. Now you're telling your parents to be wary of people out to do them harm.

The national statistics on crimes affecting the elderly are sparse and outdated but instructive nonetheless. For instance, according to the National Institute of Justice website, a national 2007 study of more than 7,000 community residing elders estimated that 1 in 10 senior citizens reported experiencing at least one form of elder mistreatment in the past year. And the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging reported $40 billion in losses in telemarketing fraud—and that was back in 2000. Crime against senior citizens is so pervasive that over the years, elder crime units have cropped up throughout the country in police bureaus, aimed solely at protecting senior citizens.

It can be a challenge to even have a discussion with your parents about their susceptibility to crime and identity theft. Have the conversation too early, when your parents feel perfectly safe and relatively invulnerable, and they may justifiably be insulted that they're thought of as elderly and vulnerable. Bring up the topic in an artful way, and they may wonder if you're more concerned about keeping your future inheritance safe than your parents' well-being.

[See 10 Ways to Avoid Online Scams]

But it is an issue you'll likely want to discuss at some point, and until you do, you need to at least be on alert.

If your parent is lonely, he or she is a target. Depressing as it is to consider, if your parent is isolated with few visitors or not much of a support system nearby, he or she is an easier mark than someone who has an active life.

"People like that become very vulnerable when they meet people who appear to be trying to help them," says Thomas Cassidy, a clinical associate professor in the School of Social Welfare at Stony Brook University in Stony Brook, N.Y., and the author of "Elder Care: What To Look For, What To Look Out For!"

And of all the entry points where a criminal could come into your parent's life—the front door, the mail, the Internet—the phone still seems to be a favorite when it comes to fleecing a senior out of his or her money. That's probably due to the fact that savvy crooks know many senior citizens are lonely, and the phone can be a good way of connecting, not to mention an effective way of escaping (hanging up) if their prey is suddenly onto them.

"A lot of older people, they don't want to be rude and just hang up on somebody. They want to let them down nicely or talk to them," says Bill Archinal, of Amarillo, Texas, a member of the board of directors for the Home Care Association of America and the owner of a Caring Senior Service of Amarillo, a franchise that provides non-medical services to senior citizens, like fixing meals and vacuuming. "And a lot of these elderly people are lonely, and so if they get a chance to talk, they're going to."

There have been many stories in the media of seniors getting calls from people claiming to be everything from your neighborhood bank teller to the police, with seemingly logical requests about why they need your Social Security number right now. There's even a scam that was making the rounds a few years ago, where a con artist would call an elderly person and pretend to be their grandson, stuck in a Canadian jail and in need of a loved one to wire over some bond money.

So what can you do? Well, for one, if you feel strongly that your parents are susceptible, talk to them about it. If it seems pretty obvious to you, they may agree with you.

[Read: Should Seniors Live Alone or With Family?]

"Discuss the scams that are going on and communicate how they can become a victim. Make this the game for them to keep the con away before she or he gets a stronghold on them," advises Patty Hopker, who is based in Medford, Ore., and is a life coach who consults individuals and families on senior care issues.