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Brett Arends’s ROI: This is what you should be discussing with your family at Thanksgiving

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Can I respectfully, and tentatively, suggest a topic of conversation over the Thanksgiving dinner table that doesn’t involve Donald Trump, Elon Musk, Joe Biden, the midterms, abortion, taxes or immigration—and which, furthermore, might actually be useful?

Naturally this topic can’t replace the really important topics, such as football, but it could usefully replace all the contentious dross that comes up and that can lead to discord over the mashed potatoes.

The topic: The way scam artists are now having a field day fleecing senior citizens, often by mobile phone or “social” media. And the reason to bring it up is that Thanksgiving is a great chance — it may even be a rare chance, depending on circumstances — to catch up with elderly relatives.

Read: This Thanksgiving weekend, Americans are traveling as if they never heard the words ‘pandemic’ or ‘recession.’ So what’s going on?

Financial fraud against senior citizens is persistent, rising, and may well come after your own family in the months or years ahead. The costs can be devastating—and not just the financial costs. People who lose even small amounts of money are apt to feel mortified and embarrassed.

Scam artists target older people, and not just because they hope they are suffering from “mild cognitive impairment.” Older people, especially retirees, are at or near their peak of lifetime wealth accumulation. They may live alone and be isolated. And if they’ve been out of an office or commercial environment for years, their antennae for shenanigans may be dulled, and their reactions may have slowed.

But if you’re trying to help, or warn, older relatives you’ve got two challenges to get over.

The simpler one may be the advice you give them. Marianela Collado, a financial planner with Tobias Financial Advisors in Plantation, Fla., suggests you remind them of the basics. Such as: The IRS will never call you, so anyone claiming to be calling on behalf of the IRS is a scam artist. Your Social Security number cannot be canceled: So, ditto. Do not give anyone any banking information, on the phone or online. Do not click on any offers in emails. 

Read: Talking about money at the holidays? It’s not always a bad idea.

“I tell my parents that really good hackers will even fake a banking interface and email,” she says. “If they have banking questions, they call the number on the back of their ATM card, not one randomly provided in an email.”

Danielle Mura, a financial planner and the founder of Spark Financials in Ripon, Calif., suggests using any recent scam emails or mailings to show relatives the warning signs. “For example, it can be as simple as warning them that if they have to give their credit card information for a prize or contest, that is most likely a scam,” she says.

She advises helping your older relatives to create a contact list with all their friends and professional contacts, if they don’t have one, and urging them only to pick up the phone if the call is from someone on the list.

See if they will agree to add you (or another family member) as a “trusted contact” to their financial accounts, a person the financial institution can contact in cases they see suspicious activity on the account. Encourage (and help) them to freeze their credit. Get on “Do Not Call” lists.

Read: 10 medical tests every older adult should get

Financial advisers also suggest their older relatives practice a simple script if they get random calls. “Here’s what I tell my parents,” says Collado. “I don’t care who calls you, even if they say it is the pope, you say, hold on, my daughter handles my affairs, let me take your number down and I’ll have her call you.” Older relatives can do this with anyone, Collado says, “The point is to show that they are not alone and that someone is there to verify who those people are and what they want.”

“Write up a script and tape it to the phone, so your loved one can refer to it when they get a spam call,” adds Mura. For example, she says, this can include simple phrases like, “I don’t do business over the phone” or—this is awesome—“I will check with my friend, who is a police officer, first.”

Read: How $10,000 will help my newborn granddaughter have a better retirement

The second challenge, which might be even harder, is how to bring this topic up with relatives without making them get defensive, or embarrassed.

“Your relative might think that your concern is about them or their mental capabilities rather than about scammers,” warns Frank Summers, a financial planner at Cetera Investors in Charlotte, N.C. “The relative may be concerned that you believe they’re not capable, or that you’re trying to take over.”

People do not like to give up control of their money, Summers adds. It’s a psychological issue, even a visceral one, as much as a financial one.

Introducing the topic the wrong way, or handling it badly, could end up making things worse, adds Nicholas Bunio, a financial adviser in Downingtown, Penn. If relatives get defensive they could just tune you out, or it could start a family argument. “Once someone gets defensive, you’ve already lost them,” he says.

Summers suggests those concerned about an elderly relative should plan out and practice the conversation ahead of time. “Place the concern on yourself rather than on your elderly relative,” he says. Tell them, “I’m concerned about scammers because they’ve gotten so sophisticated. Can we talk about it?”

Bunio recommends talking about the topic using stories. They may be examples of recent scams you’ve read about. Or even hypotheticals. “I would stick with stories,” he says. “People remember stories more,” and it keeps them from feeling attacked or accused, he says.

The bad news, of course, is that there is no shortage of stories to pick from.

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