Chapter Excerpt: Parenting Your Parents - Dundurn
Jun 03, 2024

Chapter Excerpt: Parenting Your Parents

Parenting Your Parents by Bart J. Mindszenthy & Dr. Michael Gordon is the fourth edition of this eldercare classic. Advocate Bart J. Mindszenthy and geriatrician Dr. Michael Gordon present twenty-seven case studies of families working through the eldercare puzzle. With new scenarios covering legalized marijuana and medically assisted dying, this revised and updated edition of Parenting Your Parents makes the case for good planning, family unity, and being aware of your loved ones’ health.

SCAMS: The Geriatrician’s Point of View

The media is full of reports of various scams that are especially directed to elders. Presumably the assumption is that the older generation is generally trusting and may be living alone and may not have the mental capacity to recognize a scamster. Those who specialize in scams learn what it takes to convince a trusting person to listen to their opening lines before they have a chance to shut the door or hang up the phone.

There are warnings from the various police agencies about what scams often look like. Aura, one of the many websites that describe common scams, has listed the following as the “Twelve Common Senior Citizen Scams to Know About”: the grandparent scam, government imposter scams, elder financial abuse, false investment schemes, tech support scams, robocalls and phishing messages, sweepstakes and lottery scams, elder romance scams, funeral scams, reverse mortgage scams, online shopping scams, and charity scams. And new scams are emerging all the time.

One of the more common scams that was not on the list of twelve is the home water and heating scam that Betty was nearly prey to. The Ontario Bar Association website offers this explanation of how it works:

“This questionable business model targets vulnerable homeowners, such as the elderly or newcomers to Canada, with deceptive and high-pressure sales tactics ... The scam works this way: rental companies use high-pressure sales tactics to dupe homeowners into renting HVAC, plumbing, or electrical equipment at massively inflated prices. They then assign the rental contract to an associated financing company who registers a notice of security interest or another instrument — effectively a lien — against the house, without telling the homeowner. When the homeowner goes to sell or refinance their house, they are shocked when their lawyer tells them about the lien. They are even more shocked when the finance company sends the payout statement, demanding payment of $10,000, $15,000, or even more. All to “buy out” a rental contract for an air conditioner or water softener, the retail value of which is likely no more than $2,500. In many cases, this is after the homeowner has already paid thousands of dollars in rental fees before “buying out” the contract, which makes the disparity between fair retail value and the amounts charged even more obscene.”

It sounds complicated because it is. And for seniors, many of whom are on a fixed income, the idea of saving money can be appealing. The best way to protect your parent against this array of scams is to be on the alert and to advise them to speak to someone they trust, such as family member, banker, or accountant before putting any money down or signing a financial contract. In this case, Betty’s instinct to delay signing the contract for another day and to seek advice from her son, despite the increasing pressure and incentives from the salesperson, saved her much financial and emotional distress down the road.

Authorities recommend that the person hang up on a dubious caller and report the call to a special fraud department. The other important instruction is to lock the doors, front and back, even if someone is at home, as break-ins can occur even when the home is obviously occupied.

No one should consider themselves immune from the potential of falling for a scam. To illustrate this, I will share my own recent experience with a computer tech scam, which I almost succumbed to, even with all my knowledge and experience of scams. It began when I received an email stating that I had ordered an anti-virus program for my computer for over $400. The invoice had the name Norton attached to it, a trusted anti-virus and security software company. I knew that I had not placed the order, as I already had a different program installed. I called the toll-free number on the invoice. It was answered by someone who identified himself as from Norton. Looking back, that should have triggered suspicion, as usually one is given a choice of departments (such as billing, customer service, etc.).

I followed a range of instructions and a couple of times said that I was concerned that this was a scam, but the person on the other end of the line assured me that he was just trying to cancel my order. After a number of false attempts to cancel my order, the agent gave me instructions on how to download a program that would allow him to access my computer. I recognized it by its description and told him I thought it was a scam. He denied it and hung up. Afterwards, I checked the internet for this type of scam and it was clearly reported as such. For curiosity and to confirm my suspicion, I called the number again and the same person answered. He clearly did not recognize my voice or phone number, as he stayed on the line. I informed him that I had confirmed that he is a scamster and that I reported him to the police. He abruptly hung up. Computer-based scams are increasingly a problem, with false invoices, problems with programs and risk of breakdown of your equipment, and a breach of your personal information at stake.

Children of aging parents can help prevent such scams by being aware of new scams that the authorities alert citizens to, and having discussions about these undertakings with their parents. Limits can be put onto credit cards so that if a debit for a large sum is attempted, the amount at risk is limited. Ask your parent to not write cheques without verifying with a trusted family member if the reason is genuine. Use automatic deductions on recurring charges so that cheque-writing is not necessary, and keep an eye on deductions from your parents’ bank accounts, if possible. Police authorities council not to engage with phone sales: to just hang up without even speaking. This may sound rude, but any information that a scamster can obtain can be used to an elder’s detriment.

One rule appears to have stood the test of time: “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is!” Drop it like a hot potato!

Bart J. Mindszenthy, APR, FCPRS, LM, is a family caregiver and eldercaring advocate with five books on the subject. He is also a partner in a communications firm operating in Canada and the U.S. He lives in Toronto.

Dr. Michael Gordon, MD, MSC, and FRCPC, is professor of medicine at the University of Toronto and the head of Geriatrics and Internal Medicine at Toronto's Baycrest Centre for Geriatric Care. He lives in Toronto.