Saturday, July 11, 2015

The Good Son says: Trust But Verify

Oh, my goodness. Pull up a chair, and read this. You may not even know you need to know this. And even if you do--read it again. We are so grateful to Jim Jackson! 

And all hail! He is now officially the president of the Guppies, and he has revealed to me that he is having his granddaughter Photoshop a picture of him with bouffant hairdo and tiara, but says:  "alas, it is not yet available to share."

I'm not sure "alas" is the word I would choose. But anyway:


 When my father died nearly three years ago, my mother asked me to take over the job of paying her bills and investing her assets. She had friends whose children did that for them, and she thought it would be a good idea. I said, “Sure.”

Mom completed the forms necessary to allow me to represent her with the mutual fund companies, brokerage firm, and banks that held her assets. I set up the accounts so I could handle things online, since I don’t live near my mother. I even opened a separate bank account so Mom could make ATM withdrawals, and if she lost or had that card stolen, the damage would be small, since I do not maintain a large balance in that account.

Aren’t I the good son?

According to federal officials, one in five elderly Americans reports being victims of financial exploitation. That’s 20% of our mothers and fathers – or ourselves, either now or in a few years. Another survey, this of banking officials, indicated half have dealt with suspected cases of elderly financial abuse.

Since the start of this year, more than 400 cases of elder abuse have been reported to the Tulsa Police Department, the vast majority dealing with financial exploitation. Annualizing and projecting that across the United States suggests there are well over a half million reported crimes for the year (and untold unreported crimes).

These crimes fall into two categories. First are those strangers perpetrate: internet and phone scams designed specifically for the elderly, and high pressure sales techniques especially effective for those of us who do not process information as quickly as we once did, or who sometimes become confused.

Morally worse are crimes committed by people trusted by the victim. That includes professionals with power of attorney or people with control over someone’s financial assets (as I do with my mother). Often these trusted individuals are family members.

How would anyone know if I am ripping off my mother? If I were trying to steal her money, I would go through the exact same procedures, have her sign the exact same forms. She trusts me; she’ll sign pretty much anything I tell her to (although in fairness to her, she always asks me what’s she’s signing, but I could lie.)

Last month I happened upon a news story from Panama City, Florida. Police charged a man in stealing his disabled mother’s car, pawning her jewelry, draining her bank account, and cashing her retirement and Social Security checks—oh, and leaving her and her animals to starve to death. That’s awful, isn’t it?

But no one knew until the mother was already dead.

This is an extreme case, but often family abuse (physical or financial) occurs when the elderly person either moves in with family members or a family member moves back home or after someone assumes responsibility for the person’s financial assets.

How to protect a family member (or yourself)

Ronald Reagan popularized the phrase “Trust but verify.” When it comes to financial assets, that policy should apply to anyone with the power to invest or spend (whether professionals or family members). If a professional advisor is involved, have a second set of statements sent to a family member (This should be easy to set up; if it is not, consider it a warning sign). I set up a Dropbox account I share with one of my sisters into which I periodically upload Mom’s financial statements. My sister can verify how I am spending Mom’s money and raise questions should something look suspicious.

My mother is still independent and shops using credit cards. All major cards, and many store cards, allow email alerts about certain kinds of charges. I have Mom’s set (and my own, as well) to alert me of any spending. Thieves often make a very small charge to determine if the card is good before going on a spending spree. If there is any charge I don’t recognize, I give Mom a call. This will also provide an early warning system on my mother’s mental processes should she start to slip.

Use the free annual reports from the three credit agencies to monitor credit. Set it up so every four months you get one of the free reports. If you have reason to believe that a parent has provided their social security number or date of birth or account numbers over the phone (no one should), you can set up a credit freeze so no one can set up a new credit card in the person’s name.

Do not sign anything you do not understand. I recently became aware of an elder law attorney who (1) set herself up as the executrix of the will (with compensation) and (2) attempted to slip into an estate plan the ability for the executrix (her) to change beneficiaries.

Remember, the old aphorism that if something “sounds too good to be true, it probably is” remains valid. Do not invest in any kind of security you do not fully understand. As we grow older many of us worry more about whether we’ll run out of money (regardless of our actual reality) and become more susceptible to investment schemes that enrich the seller at our expense because they are sold to “protect” our assets or money we want to leave to our heirs.

Develop an inventory of items such as jewelry, antiques, etc. that someone with home access could steal or pawn. Periodically make sure everything is still present.
If you have an elderly relative who lives alone, make sure someone makes daily contact. Often two friends can have a mutual agreement to call once a day. That’s all that would have been required to save that Florida disabled mom’s life.

Nothing can prevent 100% of elderly financial abuse, but these few simple steps will go a long way in protecting those we care about (and that includes ourselves, right?).

HANK: SO wise, Jim! And Jim will be here answering fire away. Well, first go check out his new book ANT FARM. And then ask questions.

James M. Jackson authors a series featuring the financial crimes consultant Seamus McCree. ANT FARM (2015), a prequel to BAD POLICY (2013) and CABIN FEVER (2014), recently won a Kindle Scout nomination. Ebook published by Kindle Press; print from Wolf’s Echo Press. BAD POLICY won the Evan Marshall Fiction Makeover Contest whose criteria were the freshness and commerciality of the story and quality of the writing.
His website is where you can find more information about him (including social media links) and his books (including purchase links).


In this thrilling prequel to Bad Policy and Cabin Fever, when thirty-eight retirees meet a gruesome end at a picnic meant to celebrate their achievements, financial crimes consultant Seamus McCree comes in to uncover the evil behind the botulism murders.

But the deadly picnic outside Chillicothe, Ohio, isn't the only treacherous investigation facing Seamus; he also worms his way into a Cincinnati murder investigation when the victim turns out to be a church friend's fiancé.

While police speculate this killing may have been the mistake of a dyslexic hit man, Seamus uncovers disturbing information of financial chicanery, and by doing so, puts his son in danger and places a target on his own back. Can Seamus bring the truth to light, or will those who have already killed to keep their secrets succeed in silencing a threat once more?

link for ant farm:
website link: 


Joan Emerson said...

Thanks for the information, Jim; this is definitely something we all need to know. Still, it's sad to realize there are actually people who would do such things . . . .

Mark Baker said...

Truly scary ideas, but thanks for the mostly common sense reminders.

James Montgomery Jackson said...

Joan -- it is sad, but if we can prevent even one additional tragedy by spreading the word, then that would be a happy thing!

You're welcome Mark -- I know in my own life just because something is common sense it doesn't always mean I take the time to do it... it won't happen to me...I don't have the time right now...Excuses I've used and regretted.

~ Jim

Lucy Burdette aka Roberta Isleib said...

Jim, that's so smart! I was in charge of my father's affairs from a distance too. Big responsibility and looking back, I can see where lots of things could have gone wrong.

Best wishes with Ant Farm! Please tell us more about it...

Margaret Turkevich said...

A friend's elderly mother was recently the intended victim of the grandparent scam: someone calls posing as a grandchild in trouble (this woman has 10 grandchildren 20-30 years old) who needs a thousand dollars or more and "please don't tell my parents." Grandma alerted one of her children who in turn alerted the siblings to check on the grandchildren's safety and wellbeing.

Claire said...

So well said, Jim, and so very true. Thank you for putting this out there.

Hallie Ephron said...

This is a topic dear to my heart -- THERE WAS AN OLD WOMAN is about elder abuse, a man trying to swindle his elderly aunt out of her property with a fancy mortgage... hence the advice, never sign what you don't understand.

And just wait until you get to be a certain age and the scam robocalls start.

Congratulations on the book, and I love the title. Ant Farm. Echoes of body farm. I'd love to hear how you came up with it.

James Montgomery Jackson said...

Margaret -- The mother of a friend of mine was scammed by the "grandson is stuck in Europe and lost had his passport and wallet stolen." It's not difficult for crooks to learn just enough from Social Media to make the pitches sound so real.

Lucy/Roberta thanks for asking about Ant Farm. Within the mystery genre, this book fits somewhere between traditional mystery/suspense -- not a cozy and not a superman thriller. Readers have given it very good reviews, enjoying the intricate plotting, but usually focusing on the characters with comments such as "Seamus McCree is an intelligent, occasionally naive, hero--a refreshing change from the chest-thumping butt-kicking protagonists of most thrillers." and "Seamus is a different kind of sleuth, a nice guy who uses his head and financial skills to find the answers."

In talking about another book in the series, Hank said "I love Seamus McCree." [Thank you Hank!]

The crimes and the suspense keep readers turning the pages, but Seamus, his son Paddy and the rest of the characters keep people wanting to come back and read more -- at least that's what they tell me - and readers never lie to authors, right?

~ Jim

James Montgomery Jackson said...

Hallie -- you are so right about not signing things you don't understand.

The original title of ANT FARM was (sigh) Actuarial Gains -- how geeky is that right? It was a perfect title, except that no one other than a few actuaries would want to read it. The books in the series are in alphabetical order (ANT FARM, BAD POLICY, CABIN FEVER) - the poor man's attempt to follow Sue Grafton. So, I needed a good "A" title. Here's a snipped from the scene with Seamus and his son, Paddy, that provides the title:

“You remember the ant farm you had in fourth or fifth grade?”
He gave me a quizzical look. “Yeah . . . and?”
“It’s like that. The financial records are like the glass walls: they make everything transparent. Any business activity leaves accounting trails. You can see where people are currently working, where they worked in the past. It shows traces of abandoned work where the ant trails are partially caved in. You can anticipate where new trails are headed, even before the ants get there.”
“And the ants don’t know you’re watching them,” Paddy added. “I can picture your ant farm with an insurance company on top and people dressed in suits hurrying around with their briefcases. Unless you break the glass. Then they all escape, except for the ones that try to bite your hand as you pick them up.”
“That’s what happened to it. I always won—”

The cover artist did a great job capturing that in the book cover!

~ Jim

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

As a reporter, I get calls about these tragic stories all the time--andI so agree <Jm--so much of it could have been prevented.

And oh, yeah, there was just a big article somewhere..about what not to put on social your first pet's name, and your high school mascot, since those are so often security questions..

James Montgomery Jackson said...

Yeah Hank -- those "personal" security questions, like your mother's maiden name or father's middle name -- USE FALSE INFORMATION only you would know:

It's easy for people to figure out my mother's maiden name is Montgomery -- but if instead I replace my answer with her mother's maiden name or my father's mother's maiden name -- who will guess I did that?

First pet -- choose Spot (hey I read Dick and Jane before I had a pet) or something you remember, but no one knows.

I've just started doing that.

~ Jim

Karen in Ohio said...

Great essay, Jim, and excellent ideas on staying safe. These days criminals are so darned ingenious, it's hard for even the most savvy of us to stay ahead of them.

And social media makes life much more difficult. Facebook "privacy" controls default to the least private settings, and they get reset sometimes with updates to their software. It pays to check those, periodically. I no longer use my maiden name in social media because it reveals that name on my children's pages. Family relationship links are another way scammers can find out, in the first place, that we have grandkids, and what their names/ages, etc. might be.

I've also started making an automatic response when anyone calls asking for money: "I never donate to any person or organization that initiates a call. Period." This also holds for cold-callers who are selling things. As a former cold caller myself, this does not make me super happy, but there are way too many cheats and liars these days to expose our financial security that way.

Kaye Barley said...

Jim - thank you for this. I'm wearing my feelings on my sleeve about this subject right now as my mom has recently been diagnosed with dementia and we were the most unprepared family on God's green earth for all this entails.

And best of luck with Ant Farm!

James Montgomery Jackson said...

Karen -- great advice on how to handle phone call solicitations. I'll have to keep that in mind as the political solicitations start for the next election cycle since they've managed to exempt themselves from the No Call Registry!

With respect to privacy -- the safe assumption is that you have none, regardless of what steps you take on social media, there are firms who specialize in combing all public information (including court records, like marriage licenses) and putting together profiles on individuals they then sell to whoever wants to buy them -- other corporations, fly-by-night operators.

~ Jim

James Montgomery Jackson said...

Oh Kaye -- I'm so sorry to hear this. It is such a difficult transition for us to make: reversing roles from child to parent. None of us is really prepared. I hope everything goes as well as it possibly can.

~ Jim

Ramona said...

Jim, thank you for this post. Your comment about assuming you have no privacy is true. It's tough to recognize when your parents get a little shaky, shall we say. My dad is is still pretty sharp but he got the Grandparent scam phone call. He caught on that something was hinky and called me, confused by the whole thing. After I assured him my son was not in a jail in Venezuela but was, at that moment, in my kitchen eating peanuts, I called their local sheriff, who directed me to an FBI website to report the activity. The whole episode shook up my dad because they really played on his confusion.

What Hank said about security questions is very true. Always choose the most obscure of the choices, if you can.

Anonymous said...

Good article, Jim. Would you mind if I make copies and give it to friends in a similar position, or is that some sort of copy right boo-boo?

And, by the way - the pic of the humming bird - is it recovering in one of your cardboard box "hospitals for birds who bump their heads on your windows"?


James Montgomery Jackson said...

Hi Ramona -- Another scam going around is the "your computer has a virus and we can fix it for you" phone call. My mother got it and since she relies on either me or my son to help with computer problems thanked the person for the information and called me. Problem averted.

My sister, got a similar call and because they gave her specific information about her computer (which she didn't realize was readily available) she went down the line with them, giving them her credit card number so they could fix the problem and then thought maybe that was a bad idea. She called me and then cancelled the credit card -- so only a minor inconvenience.

My son-in-law got a similar call -- and while preparing dinner, managed to string the caller along for over a half an hour -- his theory being that if he could waste the person's time it would save a few people from being called. Finally dinner was ready and my SIL hung up.

These scams work because they cost almost nothing to perpetrate and need only a very small success rate to be real money-makers.

~ Jim

James Montgomery Jackson said...

Janice (and anyone else) feel free to copy and send to others -- the more folks become aware the better.

And yes, that hummingbird struck our window. I put him in the box to rest up and he had managed only to fly up to the edge where I took the picture.

~ Jim

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

Brilliant! Make up a name -- that is such a glorious idea!

And it's an interesting generational thing--people my fathers age can feel compelled to engage and respond to phone callers--instead of saying "take me off your list" or just hanging up--they talk.

Which always engenders more calls.

Hallie Ephron said...

I used to say "Take me off your list" - now I just don't answer (love it when caller id says DALLAS TX) if I don't recognize the caller or hanging up if I do. No breath wasted.

James Montgomery Jackson said...

Hallie -- have you tried any of the apps for your cell phone? I use Mr. Number (Android) and it blocks any "private numbers" -- My theory is if they don't want me to call back, I don't want to receive their call in the first place. It has been working very well for me and is particularly useful for blocking the political requests for money or spam near elections. (I sometimes contribute to political campaigns and you can bet they sell that list to every other candidate that might possibly want my vote!)

~ Jim

Michele Drier said...

My last "out of the house" job was as the CEO for a large non-profit legal services organization serving about 10,000 seniors annually. The attorneys who handled the elder abuse cases always had harrowing tales.
Great post Jim, and good cautionary information!

Deborah Crombie said...

Jim, what a great essay! I took care of both my parents affairs, financial and personal, for the last decade or so of their lives, so was aware of some of the pitfalls you mentioned. But everyone should be. Hallie, I thought about Mina in There Was an Old Woman when I was reading this.

Deborah Crombie said...

Hallie, I use Mr. Number, too, and don't answer calls unless I know the caller. If it's legit, they can leave a message and I'll call them back!

James Montgomery Jackson said...

Thanks Michelle & Deborah.

As Michelle implied, Much of what happens in elder abuse is really quite horrid, well past the financial crimes.

~ Jim

Edith Maxwell said...

Great post, Jim. My mother was trained by her father (and trained us) not to sign anything you haven't read and understood. Three months before she died, weary but still pretty much all there, I was in the room when a caregiver asked her to sign something very routine. Mommy took it and carefully began reading it... and then fell asleep, pen in hand. The caregiver and I worked things out.

I'm Clerk of Amesbury Friend Meeting, and we've built safeguards into our business practices similar to those you describe for families. We're a small congregation and all trust each other - but, the bank statements get sent to one other person besides the treasurer, two must sign checks over X amount, and so on.

Thanks for sharing your expertise! Ant Farm is next up on my Kindle, I'm delighted to say.

Denise Ann said...

Our family is dealing with this problem with my uncle who is 85, lives alone in a subsidized apartment on Social Security. He has no children. He has been scammed over and over by people who ask for "up front tax" money because he has won a jackpot. It's awful. WE are trying to put safeguards in place, but he has to cooperate. One of my cousins just got power of attorney.

Thanks so much for raising this issue.

James Montgomery Jackson said...

Edith -- good financial practices are important for all businesses including nonprofits. Too often we read in the paper about a trusted member of a church who has embezzled funds.

Denise Ann -- It is difficult because until one has power of attorney, the person does have to cooperate -- and con artists are indeed artists at what they do.

~ Jim

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

My pleasure! I do love Seamus!

Jim, do you think it is better to hang up, or tell them to put you on the list? I sometimes hear that actually talking telegraphs that there is an actual person at the other end of that number. On the other hand if you don't answer the phone, there is an answering machine message,they may just call back.

James Montgomery Jackson said...

Hank -- The Do Not Call list is national and is supposed to apply to everyone. Crooks and boiler room operations don't much care because by the time the Feds could catch up to them, they are closed down in one location and set of phone numbers and off to another location and another set of phone numbers. So my sense is that you are wasting your time talking with them. A simple, "I'm not interested, thanks." and hanging up generally does not get a return call -- they are on to someone who might be a live fish.

Unless it is a targeted scam, the numbers are robo-dialed and only when you answer does a person come on the line. The ones who will keep calling back are the ones who have a semi-legitimate reason for calling (you've done business with them once before) or politicians who have no sense of propriety when it comes to asking for money.

Unless you are like my SIL and want to waste a person's time while you are bored cooking pasta -- then answering and keeping them talking, while making sure never to provide any real information, could be entertaining. I don't have the patience.

Just my opinions, no real expertise on this one.

~ Jim

Polly Iyer said...

Excellent post, Jim. We don't answer the phone in our house unless we know who's calling. My husband used to talk to them, friendly guy that he is, but he stopped doing that. I've even sent PayPal's scam email suspicious Paypal emails that want my info, and sure enough, they were phony. Forewarned is forearmed. In the middle of Ant Farm now and enjoying it.

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

Yup, l'm like you Polly-- hate those stupid PayPal scam emails. So great to see you here!

Jim, you completely rock!