As Canadians spend time sheltering in place during the COVID-19 pandemic, it brings home the importance of checking in with older family members. They may be feeling even more isolated and this can make them vulnerable to opportunistic scam artists.
Leanne Kaufman, head of RBC Royal Trust and president and CEO of Royal Trust Corporation of Canada and The Royal Trust Company, says elder financial fraud and scams can happen year-round, but the pandemic has increased the need to check on vulnerable members of our families and communities.
“People prey on the emotions of the elderly,” she says. Some scams are more involved and sophisticated; others are quick schemes relying on surreptitious emails, phone calls or texts. Our increasing digital footprint is a gateway for scam artists who peruse dating sites, social media, classified ads and obituaries, gathering information and finding their victims.
Sixty-seven percent of suspected elder abuse goes unreported, according to the Canadian Bankers Association. The Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre has received more then 78,000 reports from across Canada since 2014 of scammers pretending to represent the Canadian Revenue Agency or immigration officials. The centre says 4,695 people across Canada have lost more than C$16.7 million to the scam.
“Seniors are particularly vulnerable because they're (sometimes) lonely,” says Tracey Jonasson, regional vice president of western Canada for RBC Wealth Management Royal Trust. And that alienation and yearning for companionship can be co-opted by con artists.
One of the best defences is being prepared and aware of common scams:
As the world moved into a more digital life, with online grocery shopping and video calls, it creates an opportunity for scam artists to take advantage of anyone unfamiliar with the nuances of e-commerce. The favoured method is often fake mass marketing where bots are used to send emails out to large swaths of people under the guise of a legitimate retailer offering online deals. It could also be fake shipping notification scams for products you didn't purchase. Often, clicking on these deals will download malware or a virus onto your computer.
Another scheme takes advantage of seasonal sales with big name brands offering products at discounted prices. Fraudsters set up “spoof” websites that imitate the legitimate website, and send low quality goods without the named brand or certification or worse, they steal your credit card information.
Don't get duped:
Before you click a link in your email, visit the retailer's official website and make sure the deal exists. If you're wondering if a shipping notification matches a product you actually ordered, find the brand or shipping company's official customer service line and call to track your package. When shopping online, ensure a website has the word "Secure" with a lock logo and “https” at the start of the address — this will ensure your information is being encrypted. Consider shopping online with Visa gift cards to avoid giving out your personal Visa information.
These events typically revolve around the thief building a relationship with the client, often over a long period. According to the CAFC, there were 203 cases of romance scams amongst Canadians over the age of 60 reported in 2016, with the seniors losing over $8.8 million.
In many cases the relationships begin online, through social media or dating websites. It could seem sweet and innocent at first, with exchanges of emails, maybe even texts or phone calls, but eventually could end with an ask for money to help someone in need.
Jonasson points to a case she encountered where a client in Edmonton hired a handyman to look after things around the house. As the relationship progressed he moved into the basement and, eventually, they started to become more intimate despite the 40-year age gap, says Jonasson. Shortly thereafter, he took her into the bank and had his name added to her accounts so they were jointly held.
“She got sick so he had to take her to the doctor and they saw some red flags,” explains Jonasson. The doctor assessed the woman's cognitive abilities and she scored low, so they contacted RBC Royal Trust, her attorney for property. When Jonasson and her team began managing the client's affairs, they quickly realised the magnitude of the situation.
“He'd bought himself a new truck and was dipping into her money — it was very tragic,” says Jonasson.
“He was charged with theft – the sad part was it had gone on for so long.”
Don't get duped:
Isolation can invoke a need for companionship in the elderly. If you or your loved one is involved in a new romance, be wary if it begins online and seems to accelerate quickly, with the person professing an intense love early in the relationship. Watch for red flags and never send banking information or offer to process any form of payment from someone you do not know.
Elaine Blades, senior manager at Royal Trust, says: “You can't protect yourself from everything but if you have your affairs organized and the right person appointed as your attorney for property, that can go a long way."
The “Grandparents scam” (often referred to as the “Emergency scam”) is a particularly nefarious ruse preying on seniors. Typically, the con artist will call claiming to be one of the senior's grandchildren. They may not say their name until the grandparent does, but they will say they're in trouble — often a car accident, stuck in a foreign country, or in jail — and claim they need money immediately. Often, they'll request the money be sent through a money-transfer company like Western Union or Money Gram.
“I know somebody who fell prey to that; the names were very believable for the woman because she had recently lost her husband and the scam artist had accessed the obituary and knew the names of the grandchildren,” says Kaufman. The woman questioned the voice on the other end of the phone but the con artist was able to convince her that he had a cold and was indeed her grandson.
“(Eventually) she did wire him the money.”
Don't get duped:
It can be a scary situation to get a call from a grandchild in distress, and that's what the con artists prey on: your good nature and willingness to help a loved one in a pinch. But knowing there's potential that it's a scam, take a moment to calm yourself. Tell them you need to make a call and you'll get back to them as soon as possible. Then get off the phone and reach out to another family member or even the person who supposedly just called you to verify the claims.
“I don't think it would hurt to ask a question only that person would know the answer to… if they really are that person they're not going to be offended,” adds Kaufman.
With a lot of these scams, you may receive a call from a con artist masquerading as a charity, often with a similar name to a legitimate or respected foundation. In some cases, the caller may thank you for a pledge you don't remember making, or may come as a canvasser pressuring you to donate at your front door using cash or your personal banking information.
Don't get duped:
It's easy for scam artists to fake credentials or mask their phone number while calling. If it's a charity you haven't heard of, tell them you want to do your research before giving — any reputable charity will respect your need to verify their details. The best way to donate is to use official channels through charity websites. CanadaHelps provides a safe forum for donating and verifying a charity. In cases where you'd like to establish longer-term philanthropic efforts while retaining control of where your money goes, you can use a vessel like a donor-advised fund. Never give cash to someone on the street or over the phone who can't prove who they are.
Check in on loved ones
The golden rule stands true: if it's too good to be true, it probably is. Stay vigilant, shop securely online, don't fall for last minute deals or bogus charities, and always make sure strangers are who they say they are before you consider opening your wallet.
“Ask questions,” says Jonasson.
“There are places that can help you; people you can talk to.” And, of course, if you're concerned about your aging parents, start the conversation with them — share what you know about the types of scams that are going around.
“Once they've heard a story and what the outcome was, they realize 'Oh my, that could be me.'”