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Linda Buerkley: Seniors, Don’t Learn About Financial Scams the Hard Way Like Me

I always tell my children, “I don’t want anything for Christmas. Spend it on your kids. I have everything I need.” I said the same thing this holiday season, albeit with less resolve. What they didn’t know was that I was in a deep financial hole, victimized by a targeted scam that siphoned a significant amount of money from my savings–critical funds for a senior living on a fixed income.

While reporting this theft, I learned I was only one of the thousands of seniors falling victim to the barrage of scams targeting us daily. According to a report from the Federal Bureau of Investigation on elder fraud, documented losses doubled from 2019 to 2021 to $1.7 billion stolen from over 265,000 seniors victimized by fraudsters.

As one of those 265,000 victims, I want to share my experience to help other seniors better recognize possible fraudulent signs and protect themselves against the criminals who target us.

A few months after the pandemic began, I discovered I had been swindled out of $56,000 by someone I grew to trust, so my guard was down. I’ve always been careful with finances, which caused me an overwhelming embarrassment to be a victim of fraud. I didn’t want to tell anyone, especially my adult children. The upcoming holidays only fueled my anxiety.

However, I’m fortunate to learn how to deal with that stress and anxiety while on my journey to seek help with all the money I owed. That path took me to a debt resolution company that offered financial therapy sessions for people in my position while moving me beyond debt. It was an invaluable lifeline for me emotionally and financially.

At first, I was afraid to tell anyone my story, but through the group sessions led by two financial therapists, Dr. Erika Rasure and Nathan Astle. I learned that I was not alone in my anxiety and stress. The sessions helped me regain my confidence. And there was healing in sharing. I began speaking to other attendees, sharing my experience and helping them overcome their shame.

Dr. Rasure contacted me to let me know her employer was launching a new client initiative. The program would select two clients annually for an accelerated debt payoff–and they were beginning it with me! It was overwhelming. They appreciated my progress in their program and were willing to help others. I’m not sure I deserve such a generous gift, but I am so grateful.

In hindsight, the payoff was only part of what this organization gifted me. They created a soft place to land and a clear path forward. Now, I have the knowledge and resources to better protect my money and understand the need for financial therapy.

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While my debt payoff is something I can neatly measure, financial therapy holds just as much value to me. The free weekly meetings gave me the strength to talk to my family about my challenging situation.

The team helped me identify the right time to tell them, think through what I wanted to say and even offered to be on the phone with me when I shared the news. It was not an easy conversation, but it felt easier to navigate with someone in my corner encouraging me.

Plenty of bad actors are preying on the elderly community. We must take steps to safeguard ourselves and our money. The best thing you can do is find a circle of people you can truly trust. Call upon friends or family when something seems suspicious or even wrong.

I have peace of mind knowing my family will play that role for me moving forward. And I am grateful to Beyond Finance and their team for stepping into that role when I wouldn’t allow my family to do the same.

Five Steps to Protect Yourself Against Elder Fraud from Beyond Finance:

If you believe you’re part of a scam or discover later that you were a victim, follow these five steps to protect yourself and your assets:

Identify a trusted point of contact. It’s important to have a friend or family member you can call with concerns and advice. Many financial institutions will also allow you to add an additional point of contact to bank and investment accounts.

Sign up for a service that monitors your accounts and investments. Several third-party entities can help detect and flag suspicious activity.

Know what you’re up against. Scammers tend to stick with what works. Familiarize yourself with common scams for your age group and your area.

Take your time to verify. Don’t let someone bully you into making a fast decision. Do your homework and research the company or individual reaching out to you. Don’t be scared to say “no” or hang up the phone.

Report suspicious activity. If you think you might be a victim of fraud, call the National Elder Fraud Hotline at 1-833-372-8311.

Linda Buerkley is a retired teacher.

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