“Granny, I need your help.”

Several years ago, before dementia stole my mother’s mind, she was the victim of what was, at the time, a well-known telephone scam. Called the “grandparent scam,” it involved a telephone call to an older person from someone posing as one of their grandchildren, in trouble and needing money right away.

My mother fell for this. She was completely convinced that one of her grandsons was languishing in a Montreal jail, waiting on her to send $5,000 immediately to secure his release. She did not call my sister, the mother of the apparently jailed grandson, to check out the details, or me, the lawyer in the family, for some legal advice. Instead, she got into her car, drove to her bank and withdrew $5,000 in cash. This, apparently, did not raise any red flags with the teller, even though my mother had never withdrawn anything close to this amount of cash in the past. She then proceeded to the money transfer company that she had been instructed to use where, thankfully, a sharp young employee who was aware of the scam refused to take my mother’s money.

When my mother told me what had happened a few days later, she was filled with energy from her adventure, seeing herself as the hero in a story that had never happened. “I just wanted to help,” she said, adding that she didn’t feel useful anymore, now that we were all grown up and managing our own lives. Here was her chance, she thought, to show all of us that we still needed her.

Independence vs safety

As my mother’s dementia has progressed, my siblings and I have taken steps to minimize the possibilities that she could be scammed again. She no longer knows how to use her computer or cell phone, which shuts off two major access points. She does not have a driver’s licence or a car, so she can’t go to the bank and take out money without one of us accompanying her. One of my sisters does most of her banking and keeps a close eye on her credit card account.

But, we also want her to maintain as much independence as possible. She has a landline telephone, and we can’t and don’t monitor who calls her on that. Somehow, while she can’t remember what is happening minute to minute, she remembers her debit and credit card passwords and knows where to find both in her wallet. If she is out with one of us and wants to withdraw cash from her chequing account, we try to give her the privacy to do so without peering over her shoulder.

Recently, my sister and I, who hold her power of attorney for property, were moving some money from an account she has in one financial institution to an account she has in another. Unbeknownst to us, the first institution called our mother to get her “consent” to moving the money. She, of course, upon being told her daughters wanted to move the money, said yes, having no real notion of what was being done.

We are putting further measures in place so this can’t happen again, but it was a good reminder of how easy it would still be for someone to steal from her.

Scams, scams and more scams

In the midst of this, I came upon a publication from the Competition Bureau of Canada called “The Little Black Book of Scams,” at my community credit union.

While not of particular help in my mother’s situation, it does provide information about common scams, even if the advice is on the basic side, staring with:

“Trust your instincts. If it’s too good to be true, don’t sign up.”

Other tips include paying attention to any pre-checked clauses before signing terms and conditions of an offer, regularly checking credit card statements for unknown charges and checking email addresses to ensure they are not fakes created to look very like the real thing. Spelling errors or the use of incorrect language are also red flags. (For example, the word “attorney” in a phone message about so-called unpaid income tax should be a dead giveaway, since in Canada the correct word is lawyer.)

Some of the suggestions seem ridiculous in an age when many people regularly bank online and purchase everything from groceries to houses over the internet. How, in such a world, are we to avoid sharing personal information “over the phone, via text message, email or the internet” as the booklet tells us we should?

Many scam themes are identified in the publication, ranging from subscription traps to identity theft, health and medical scams and the above-mentioned emergency scams to romance scams. To prevent being scammed romantically, we are told to “make sure you only use legitimate and reputable dating sites,” which seems both obvious and impossible.

Door to door scam artists

Of course, scams can also come to your front door, whether it is a high-pressure sales job to convince you to have your ducts cleaned or your driveway paved or a plea for a charitable donation.

I once encountered the latter. I was the president of the board of directors of a women’s shelter at the time, and these hapless scammers tried to convince me to donate money to the shelter through them, when I knew perfectly well that we did not raise money this way. They beat a hasty retreat as soon as it was obvious I knew more than they did about how the shelter raised its money.

The booklet contains good information about how to report a scam as well as what you can do if you have been the victim of one.

My nephew’s “arrest” has become a bit of a family legend now; at family gatherings, inevitably, someone mentions it, knowing full well, of course, that it did not happen, and we all have a good chuckle; something we would not be able to do had our mother actually sent the $5,000.

We may make light of this particular past escapade, but we worry about our mother’s vulnerability to being manipulated by someone with bad intent, even as we try to preserve some measure of her dignity and autonomy.

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