SALT LAKE CITY — The ongoing coronavirus pandemic continues to force social restrictions in support of public health, making risks associated with isolation especially prevalent among the senior population.
A Wells Fargo study conducted by The Harris Poll indicated a quarter of all seniors age 60 and older reported feeling isolated and lonely, with 43% going days without talking to others and spending most of their time alone.
The survey also showed that 1 in 5 seniors report living alone — a number even higher among senior women — at 26%. This isolation creates a ripe environment for scammers looking to take advantage of a vulnerable aging demographic, said Lauree Peterson-Sakai, a senior vice president and aging risk strategy leader at Wells Fargo.
"Isolation has been around before, we've been talking about it for years, it is something that is definitely increasing, and the pandemic is just exacerbating that issue," she said. Because seniors can often be on their own and away from family or friends who might look after them, they can become unwitting victims for criminals targeting them through various methods such as phone, email or chat rooms.
"They ingratiate themselves and create either a fake friendship or long lost love or (other seemingly close relationship)," she explained. "It could just even be a lottery scam or one of the (typical) other scams that you see and for someone being lonely, it just opens them up to those things further."
The isolation has become a major contributing factor in cases involving financial exploitation of the elderly — intensified by the pandemic.
"It begins with some simple phone calls, chats, but then that 15-minute conversation goes on for an hour or two hours and may build that friendship up," Peterson-Sakai said. "Then it's, 'Oh my goodness, I don't have enough money. I've lost my job, I don't know what I'm going to do.'"
To make matters even more concerning, a number of seniors feel their chances of being duped by a financial scam is highly improbable, the study showed.
Isolation has been around before, we've been talking about it for years, it is something that is definitely increasing, and the pandemic is just exacerbating that issue.
–Lauree Peterson-Sakai, aging risk strategy leader at Wells Fargo
Of all seniors age 60 and older, 69% believe they are unlikely to be susceptible to a financial scam, even though 97% of seniors acknowledge that older people are very or somewhat more likely to fall prey to a fraud scheme.
When asked about their peers, the poll found 47% of all seniors knew someone who had been defrauded in a scam.
"What is so different about when seniors and the vulnerable get scammed is they have more money usually," Peterson-Sakai said. "The key is that they have more money and they are less likely to actually report that they've been scammed because they're embarrassed."
She said a key to helping seniors deal with possible con artists is to have someone they trust who can guide them through potentially vulnerable situations.
"For family members, we need to make sure that we are reaching out and having conversations," she said. "Just because we can't physically see them anymore doesn't mean that we shouldn't be Skyping with them, setting times for family members to reach out to them, sending cards and letters — there's just a need to step up the communication is what needs to happen."
The end of year is a particularly risky time as scammers use things such as Medicare open enrollment, sham charity organizations, and increased online shopping to target seniors, she said.
In Utah, the best way to combat this criminal stalking is to have family members and friends who are looking out for the elderly.
"One of the warning signs would be if there's a new caregiver or friend that's particularly protective or if there are some major financial changes that are a surprise to family members," said Brian Maxwell, spokesman for the state Commerce Department. "Something else to be on the lookout for is if there are changes that are radical in spending habits, or if there's a sudden change to some financial documents like a will or trust or beneficiaries."
He said phone calls are a frequent tool used to contact seniors, especially those who are self-isolating because of the pandemic.
"What we advise people to do is anytime you get a phone call about a financial matter, there's no problem with hanging up when someone offers you the opportunity for a quick turnaround of turning your money into a major investment realization," he said. "The right thing is to hang up and research the opportunity."
He said very often financial fraud is usually reported after the crime has taken place. He said having family members and friends who are on the lookout for their elderly relatives is extremely important.
Anyone with suspicions of possible senior financial exploitation to contact the Utah Division of Securities at 801-530-6600 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Protecting yourself and loved ones from fraud Talk with trustworthy family members about your financial plans and call when something doesn't feel right — even if you are being told not to. Update and have legal documents in place, such as wills, an advance health care directive, and powers of attorney for financial matters and for health care. Consider signing up for direct deposit, automatic bill pay and large transaction alerts. Keep checks and credit cards locked away. Be aware of potential red flags, including an alleged emergency involving family members; lottery winnings requiring upfront cash payment for taxes; and calls from alleged government agencies, such as Social Security, threatening arrest or penalties.