Elder care advocates know that senior financial exploitation is a very real, damaging issue. However, even among those working directly on the problem, there is disagreement about how many seniors fall victim to these exploits each year. The underlying problem is that the vast majority of cases are never reported, meaning that estimates about the scope of the problem rely on often unreliable predictions. The Federal Trade Commission estimates that about 13.5% of the entire adult population is the victim of some type of fraud or scam each year. When trying to get a gauge on the effect on seniors specifically, most research focuses on random phone surveys where seniors are asked if they’ve ever lost money in one of those unscrupulous ways.
But are those phone surveys reliable? Many fraud investigators have their doubts.
For example, as discussed recently in the New York Times, a 2011 National Victim Profiling study from the AARP attempted to test the accuracy of phoning seniors and asking about their history with frauds and scams. The research involved calling nearly 800 seniors who were known to have been victims of a scam. The senior names were taken directly from police records across the country. Amazingly, when this group was called, only 40% admitted to having been scammed–resulting in a staggering 60% error rate.
Our New York elder law attorneys appreciate that shame and confusion are at the root of the unreliability of data on this issue. One fraud investigator suggested that the error rate was so high in that test–and in all similar efforts–because seniors are embarrassed about admitting they’ve been taken advantage of in these ways. It is difficult to get around these embarrassment issues. The best approach is often simply to have outside eyes aware of a senior’s financial situation–like an elder law attorney or financial planner–so that abnormalities can be spotted.
Who is most at risk?
A helpful AARP study entitled “Outsmarting the Scam Artists” suggests that different demographic groups are more likely to fall victim to certain types of scams. For example, fraudulent claims about unique investment opportunities most often affect college-educated white men in their sixties. These scams often claim the chance to invest in oil drilling or gold mining. Lottery scams, where foreign lottery winnings are claimed with a need to send a small fee to collect, are most likely to affect women in their seventies who live alone and often have less education and financial literacy.
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