Do You Know How To Protect Yourself From Catfishing and Financial Abuse?

A version of this article ran in the April 2021 edition of The Elder Law Report, Including Special Needs Planning

Senior citizens and members of the disabled community have always been a major target for catfishing schemes, but since the pandemic hit last year it’s at an all-time high.  According to the Elder Justice Center, fraud increased to over $3.3 billion in 2020, well above the 2019 report. This blog post is intended to warn of catfishing schemes, which are no joke, especially when the most vulnerable members of our community could be victimized. That is why it is so important to remain on high-alert in the event you encounter financial and other forms of abuse. 

Internet friendly seniors need to be vigilant for cat fishers.  Catfishing involves schemes in which the perpetrator creates and holds out to the victim an offer which is too good to be true, to entice the victim into giving up personal information, money, or something of value for fraudulent purposes.  Catfishing comes in various degrees of sophistication and can involve the creation of a false identity which is held out to the public.  In one local catfishing scheme, the perpetrator held himself out as a lonely man working on an isolated oil rig looking for long distance love online.  The isolation of an oil rig is a convenient excuse for providing limited photos and for declining to meet in person or talk on the telephone. Communication tends to be via instant message or in online hang outs and chatrooms or via text messages.  Red flags for a catfishing scheme can include:  poor English, lack of communication by video, FaceTime, or any method which allows you to see who are talking with, a rapid paced romance, requests for you to use a particular type of software or program, requests for you to download a computer program (which may contain malware or ransomware), and requests for your social security number, Medicare number, bank account or credit card number or for you to purchase gift cards and to send them the gift card numbers.  Often the perpetrators of catfishing schemes are overseas. 

Another financial abuse scheme is unemployment fraud.  In these schemes, the perpetrator files an unemployment claim based on the victim’s work record and then opens up a new bank account into which the victim’s fraudulently claimed unemployment benefits are deposited.  Earmarks of unemployment fraud include receiving a letter from the unemployment office confirming the filing of a claim based on the victim’s work record.   Sometimes, the victim may be unaware of the scheme until he or she receives income tax forms in January of the following year, reporting unemployment income which the victim did not receive. File a complaint with the local police department and report the matter to your local unemployment office, which typically will have a fraud hotline.  

Then there are COVID-19 financial abuse schemes, which include: 

  • An offer for COVID-19 treatment, a vaccine or a booster shot from anyone other than a medical professional or a government health department
  • Being offered the chance to “jump the line” for the COVID-19 vaccine by paying a fee
  • Being offered quicker utility service restoration by paying a fee, particularly using a gift card, or a payment app such as Venmo, PayPal or Zelle 

Here are some general precautions you can take to minimize the risk of elder financial abuse:

  • Review your mail and bank statements regularly and contact your credit card company or the merchant regarding any unfamiliar transactions 
  • Do not let others access your money. Put your bank and financial statements away in a locked cabinet or drawer out of sight. Do not leave them in your car or in plain view in your house.  Refrain from carrying a lot of cash. 
  • Keep in regular contact with friends and family who can help you. 
  • Order a copy of your credit report and review it. 
  • Do not keep passwords or ATM or telephone passwords in writing in your wallet, purse, glove compartment or anywhere easily accessible in your home. 
  • Don’t ever give a power of attorney to someone you don’t know very well and trust.  Your power of attorney should be trustworthy, available, and respectful and should put your interests before their own. 

If you still have questions, there is a helpful senior financial safety risk assessment tool offered free to the public by the Center for Elder Law and Justice, a New York organization, in collaboration with the Pro Bono Net.  The online tool can be used to assess whether there are red flags for elder financial abuse and what you can do in response.  The tool is available online at https://elderjusticeny.org/.

Additional support and resources may be available through your local Adult Protective Services office, the county Office on Aging, local law enforcement and the county prosecutors offices. Resources at the state level include the Office of the Public Guardian, and the Office of the Ombudsman for the Institutionalized Elderly. 

Questions? Let Jane know. 

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