We have to become sentinels for our seniors.
The woman, in her 60s, retired and experiencing some cognitive issues, received a phone call and was told she owed thousands of dollars to the Internal Revenue Service for three years’ worth of back taxes. She was told there was a warrant for her arrest and that, if she did not wire money immediately to a Western Union office in North Carolina, she would be arrested.
“By the time she got to me, she had already wired them $1,500, and they told her to pay the rest using her credit card and to purchase iTunes cards. She didn’t even know what an iTunes card was. They also told her to leave her phone off the hook until she sent the money or cards,” Andrea said. “Because she did not have a working cellphone and did not know her PIN number or how or where to purchase iTunes cards, she came to me.”
That last point was key. The two women, both school counselors, had formed a bond as their career paths crossed. Even after retiring, with no family close by, Andrea kept in touch. When her friend showed up at her door late one night with the story of the IRS chasing her for money, Andrea stopped her from sending any more money and helped file a police report.
“What can be done to prevent isolated elderly adults from making these ill-advised and heart-rending financial decisions?” Andrea said.
I don’t expect these bogus calls to stop once the federal tax return deadline passes next Monday. They are likely to increase actually.
Now that many people have filed their returns, some of the con artists have switched tactics, making calls claiming they need to double check information on a person’s return, according to the IRS. The motive, of course, is to get people to reveal bank or credit card information or their Social Security numbers.
“These schemes continue to adapt and evolve in an attempt to catch people off guard,” IRS Commissioner John Koskinen said in another warning about the scam. “Don’t be fooled. The IRS won’t be calling you out of the blue asking you to verify your personal tax information or aggressively threatening you to make an immediate payment.”
So back to Andrea’s concern and how we all can help. If you have a senior in your life, whether a parent, an aunt, uncle, neighbor, friend or former colleague, set up an accountability system.
Not that she needed it, but when my grandmother Big Mama was alive, we had an agreement that she wouldn’t make any major financial decisions or give out any information unless she talked to me first. Often, she would guess someone was trying to con her, but she nonetheless would call to tell me about a letter or phone solicitation.
“What do you think about this, ’Shell?” Big Mama would ask. (’Shell was my grandmother’s nickname for me.)
You don’t have to be an expert. You just need to be available. Here’s the advice I gave to Andrea:
●Become the person's sounding board. Say something such as: "If you're unsure about something, just call me and I can help you figure out if the information is correct."
The language is important because you don’t want to sound as if you are taking over their finances. But you also want to make clear they can and should call anytime to double-check something. There may come a time when this person needs someone to take control, but for now you’ll be the go-between.
●Schedule checkup calls. You can't always be sure the person will consult you, so become a reliable presence. Ask lots of probing questions. This is a time when being nosy is a good thing.
●Stay informed about the latest scams. Share news you see about schemes. It's a way to plant seeds of mistrust so that if a call or email comes, the person will be skeptical. The Federal Trade Commission has a "Scam Alert" feature (consumer.ftc.gov/scam-alerts). Subscribe to it and have the alerts delivered to your email inbox.
There are many seniors who are capable of managing their finances and steering clear of scams. But others are vulnerable and need sentries to protect them from financial predators. They need you.
Write Singletary at The Washington Post, 1301 K St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Comments may be used in a future column, with the writer's name, unless otherwise requested. To read more, go to wapo.st/michelle-singletary.