Loneliness and isolation among seniors is a growing concern. For those with trusting natures and significant assets, these circumstances may make them especially vulnerable to scams. And as more seniors go online to find companionship, some may be setting themselves up for personal disappointment and financial disaster.
My elder law research focuses on older adults and their legal needs. While there are many issues related to this demographic group, a recurring one is the risks associated with loneliness, isolation and the internet.
This story is about Timothy, a composite of several older adults.
Timothy lost his wife 15 years ago. Still active, yet lonely, he turned to internet dating to find companionship. He made a particularly good connection with 51-year-old Maria, who responded to the profile he posted on a dating website for older adults.
In the beginning, Maria called Timothy each evening, emailed him several times a day and became a frequent visitor at his home. Maria told Timothy about her failed career plans and financial struggles. She said she was falling in love with him.
Timothy shared these feelings. He was flattered to have Maria in his life and enjoyed buying her new clothes and jewelry. One evening, Maria asked Timothy to invest $120,000 in her new business venture. She said she didn’t trust anyone else to be her business partner. Timothy said he would think about it. It was a lot of money after all.
Three days later, Maria told Timothy she needed the money immediately, or the business deal would fall through and she’d lose her initial investment. She also said if she didn’t get the money right away, she wouldn’t be able to spend as much time with Timothy because she’d have to dedicate her time to putting a new deal together. She said she might even have to move out of town to pursue another opportunity.
Desperate to keep Maria in his life, Timothy made the investment. He never saw Maria or his money again.
Distinguishing between a scam and true love is often difficult for the individual caught up in the whirlwind romance. Nevertheless, these scams usually follow a pattern. People like Maria scheme their way into seniors’ lonely hearts, win their trust, drain their finances and then disappear. Not only do the seniors suffer financial loss, but they also experience emotional harm.
Here are some of the signs and how you can safeguard yourself or aging loved ones:
1. A new (and often younger) person frequently calls, emails and visits the senior, confiding in him or her and gaining their trust. The companion will tell the senior he or she is falling in love with him.
2. A request for financial help for a business venture, personal or family emergency, or some other financial crisis.
3. Insisting the money is needed immediately, or else negative consequences will follow. Perhaps the business deal will turn sour or an aging mother will be forced out of a private retirement residence.
4. After the money exchanges hands, the senior never sees the companion again.
Older adults have the right to make unwise decisions, including those that place them at risk of financial abuse. However, if you know or suspect an older person is being abused, talk to them. Ask if they’d like your help. Discreetly provide them with resources available to victims of elder abuse, and encourage them to seek assistance. It may be risky to confront the fraudster yourself. Instead, consider contacting a community services agency, a lawyer, the public guardian or the police.
Heather Campbell is a PhD student in law at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. She was previously a lawyer in British Columbia, Canada. You can visit her website at www.seniorslaw.ca and follow her on Twitter @SeniorsLaw.
An earlier version of this article appeared in The Toronto Star.