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Senior Savvy: How to Protect Yourself As You Grow Older

Credit Wise (featured column)
by Jennifer Wallis

My grandmother Alice (we called her Gran), was just about the grooviest granny around. Even as she reached her 90s she never lost her sense of humor, sharp wit or her love of adventure. My fearless cousin Amy went backpacking across Europe right before Gran passed away and I know that if she has been physically able, she’s have been right there with her.

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While Gran was very good at physically taking care of herself, she was a little too trusting for her own good when it came to money. Once, a man came to her door asking if he could fix her roof. She had not noticed a problem with it and wasn’t physically able to get up there to check it out. She didn’t want to seem rude so she took his word for it. People from her generation were raised to be polite. Well, a $5.00 can of silver spray paint later, the man was gone with hundreds of her dollars. She was ashamed to tell us about it because she knew she’s been suckered.

Unfortunately, this isn’t a rare occurrence. It is a sad fact that there are people out there who will lie, cheat, and steal to get your money. Sometimes they are strangers but sadly, sometimes they are your own family. As the senior population grows, it will become even more important for seniors to take some proactive measures to protect themselves. According to the National Institute on Aging, more than 500 million people worldwide are 65 and older. By 2030 that number is projected to increase to 1 billion-which is 1 in 8 of the Earth’s inhabitants.

If you are a senior, please take the following tips to heart. If not, pass this on to a loved one. While I believe that most of the people in this world are good, there are many that are not. You never know who is who so it is best to be prepared. The best defense against these people is a good offense. Here are some common scams to be aware of and how to can keep from becoming a victim. Many of these come from the National Institute on Aging website that you can view here www.niapublications.org.

Don’t be afraid to hang up on telephone salespeople. You aren’t being impolite. You are taking care of yourself! Remember, you can say no to any offer.
Don’t give any personal information, including your credit card number or bank account, over the phone unless you were the one who made the call.
Don’t take money from your bank account if a stranger tells you to. In one common swindle, a thief pretends to be a bank employee and asks you to take out money to “test” a bank teller. Banks do not check their employees this way.
Don’t be fooled by deals that seem too good to be true. They are often rip-offs. Beware of deals that ask for a lot of money up front and promise you more money later. Check with your local Better Business Bureau to get more information about the record of any company before doing business with them.
Do be on guard about hiring people who come door-to-door looking for home repair work. They may not be trained to do the work, and they may overcharge you. You should try to check their references. Always spell out the details of the work you want done in writing. Never pay for the whole job in advance.

Another common scam is predatory lending and investments. People from a mortgage company or investment firm may contact you to try to get you to refinance your mortgage or invest in their product. Make sure that you understand and agree to all of the terms of the agreement before you sign anything. Some may pressure you into quickly signing things that you don’t understand. Others may leave things like the interest rate blank until after you sign it. They may verbally tell you one rate and then write in a higher one later. It is best to have a trusted friend or loved one review anything that you sign. The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission also has a Senior Care Package available for tips on investing for seniors www.sec.gov/investor/seniors/seniorscarepackage.htm

If you get to the point where you have trouble remembering things, it may be a good idea to appoint a very trusted family member a Power of Attorney so they can help you keep your financial affairs in order. Just make sure that you completely trust the person who you assign as your POA.

It is also not uncommon for family members to ask for money or use your credit cards. Always keep your credit cards and checks in a safe place. If someone asks you for money, politely decline. As health costs are rising, people on a fixed income typically need their money to take care of themselves. I once had a client whose son had charged $10,000 on her credit card without her approval. The collection agency was calling her all hours of the day and raising her blood pressure. She was not willing to press charges against her son in that case because she felt sorry for him. It is important to realize that a family member who would do that to you probably cares only about themselves and may even have a substance abuse problem. Saying “No” will not enable them and may actually help them. Another client had a son who had used her name to get credit cards. If you suspect Identity Theft, check your credit report for free at www.annualcreditreport.com.

Another great idea is to have a trusted family member, friend or a professional such as someone with AARP, CCCS or other community organizations work as your advocate. Make it a practice to talk about any financial issues with them before you make a decision. They can help you read any paperwork to make sure that it is a fair deal before you sign or buy anything. This practice can also discourage any scam artists. If you say, “Well, I run everything involving money by my son/friend/advocate first. Let me talk to them and I will get back to you.” Many scam artists want you to make an on the spot decision. If you say you have to check with someone else, this may discourage them from coming back. It’s also a great way to get over your fear of being the “bad guy” by saying “No”. This way, you can always make someone else part of the decision so that you don’t feel that burden.

The bottom line is that you have worked hard to get to this point in your life. Don’t let someone else take away what you have earned. Always look out for yourself and ask for help from trusted sources when you just aren’t sure. If every senior is armed with this information and empowers themselves, we can put these slimy scammers out of business.

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Copyright © 2007 by Jennifer Wallis. All rights reserved.

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