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My parents are in their mid-80s and live independently nearby. The other day I was at their home and answered their telephone. The gentleman on the other end asked for my father using his first name as if he knew him and proceeded to tell me about a fundraiser that his organization was doing and asked for a donation. He asked me to “verify” my father’s address numerous times. I told him to tell me what he had and I would verify it. He would not. After going through this several times I hung up.

Afterwards I wondered what would have happened had my father had picked up the phone and if he would have given him a donation. While my father does not appear to have any dementia I’m not certain that he would have exercised good judgment or given in to the caller’s persistent questions.

What can I do to prevent my father from giving money to every real or scam caller? How can I stress not to give out any personal information over the phone? Joanna W., Palm Beach Gardens, FLA.

Sadly, your experience is not uncommon. I too intercepted several calls a day to my father from would-be scammers and telemarketers hired by organizations seeking donations over the phone. They are known to target households in zip codes where there is a large population of retirees who are all too willing to talk to a “nice” stranger.

“When it comes to older adults, swindlers know that they frequently have a captive audience,” Alina Becker MSW, told me recently. She’s a social worker and coordinator of Elder Abuse Prevention Initiatives at the Alliance For Aging. She recommends having a conversation with both your parents about threats to their privacy, security and finances. She offered this advice:

“Try to convince your parents to not make any decisions when they get those phone calls. Suggest that they ask the caller for their phone number so that your parent can call them back; this may be enough for the scammer to hang up. Unfortunately, sometimes older adults who may be lonely will be glad to talk to them, or too polite to cut them off." 

“To avoid making your parents feel like they can’t handle these calls on their own, gather several news articles about scams, identity theft, and other types of elder financial abuse to show that this is a common threat and it can happen to anyone!”

To help protect my own parent, I instructed his caregivers to answer and screen calls whenever possible and I gave them permission to interrupt or disconnect a call if they heard my father engaging in a conversation with this type of caller.

I appreciate what a challenging situation this can be. Older adults will assert that they’re still in charge of their finances and have the right to spend their money in any way they wish without oversight. That’s certainly true, but if they have already demonstrated a lack of good judgment and you are seeing additional signs of dementia, it will be necessary to take further steps to protect your parents. This could include adding your name to their checking and credit card accounts so that you can monitor their expenses online, or hiring a daily money manager to provide the closer oversight that’s needed.

If this scenario sounds familiar to you, I recommend reading Jeff Opdyke’s book, Protecting Your Parents’ Money: The Essential Guide to Helping Mom and Dad Navigate the Finances of Retirement. It includes a section on preventing elder fraud.