Protecting the elderly from Facebook trolls

There is a popular film and TV show of the same name – Catfish – the highlights people who make up personas on social media in the hopes of wooing love interests. Sometimes, these online relationships go on for years, until eventually the love dissolves or the person on the other end is exposed for being someone other than who he or she claimed to be.

Elderly people are especially at risk for being fooled by someone online. Many older men and women are lonely, having lost a spouse due to death or divorce, and whose children and grandchildren are grown or busy. Social media sites like Facebook can seem like a good outlet, but it’s also a place where scammers and criminals prey on unsuspecting victims who want companionship.

According to a report on CNBC, older Americans are at risk for fraud more than other age groups. Seniors over the age of 65 are 34 percent more likely to have lost money on a financial scam than people in their 40s, the network reported, citing research by by the Stanford Center on Longevity and the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority’s Investor Education Foundation. About one in 20 elderly respondents in a large 2014 study of New Yorkers (many who retire to Florida) reported being financially exploited at some point in their later lifetime. Only one in 44 seniors report fraud or scams; most fear their children will think they are no longer capable to handle their finances.

So where does Facebook come in? A thief befriends an elderly man or women on Facebook, and starts to communicate often. The illusion of a bond ensues, with the suspect encouraging the senior to talk on the phone or text, away from the social media safeguards that protect such things from happening directly on the site.

Commonly referred to by law enforcement officials as a “sweetheart scam,” the online friend proclaims love and explains a problem he or she needs help with. As CNBC reports:

“They have lost their passport and can’t get home unless someone can give the embassy money to process their new one, or they’re on a business trip and their briefcase was stolen, or something similar.

Many single people make new year’s resolutions to find a partner…people are feeling vulnerable. They want to be in a relationship. They want to feel love. So they go online.”

One woman was swindled out of $180,000. According to the FBI, losses from sweetheart or dating scams have doubled in the past 10 years to between $15,000 and $20,000 per victim.

So what do you do? offers a few tips:

  • Don’t get involved right after you are widowed or divorced
  • Don’t send money or valuables to anyone
  • Research your new friend or love interest; pay for a background check
  • Demand to meet in person at a safe, public place
  • Be wary of early “I love yous”
  • Watch his or her grammar. Bad grammar can be a sign that someone is really from in another country, whose English is a second language, and therefore is not who he or she says
  • Ask your family and friends for input.
  • Listen to your instincts. You likely know the truth deep down.

Our experienced and trusted estate planning attorneys have been serving Treasure Coast families for decades, and Michael Fowler is one of only nine attorneys in the state of Florida who is double board-certified in wills trusts and estates and in elder law.  Contact us for your initial consultation at one of our conveniently located offices in Fort Pierce, Stuart, Port St. Lucie, Vero Beach, and Okeechobee.

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