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Aging Clients: Beware “The Sweetheart Scam”


Aging Clients: Beware "The Sweetheart Scam"

If it didn’t happen so often, there would be no need to warn your single, widowed clients about it.

But every day, someone gets taken in by a “special someone” who appears to have only your client’s interests at heart. The special someone is a scam artist who knows just how to get an unsuspecting lonely man or woman into the web of deception. And then they finagle money out of your client and run.

Some of these scammers are skillful repeat offenders.

Some just see an opportunity and proceed to milk it for all it’s worth. Take the case of Tommy, whose wife was ill with cancer. He used to take his clothes to the local dry cleaner every week and he got friendly with the woman who ran the business. She loved to chat and gossip and he was lonely with his caregiving, cooped up with the daily chores he had to do for his ailing wife. Norma, the dry cleaner heard all about it.

Just after his wife passed, Tommy got a visit from Norma. She was so consoling and comforting. He felt like he had a real friend. She had heard about his wife’s illness for over a year and was ever so sympathetic. She also knew he had money. Within a month she had moved in with Tommy.

Over the next six months of giving Tommy her undivided attention, she managed to persuade him to give her “loans” of over $300K. She promised to stay with him forever. He loved the flattery and feeling special. No sooner had Norma gotten the last of what she could easily take, she promptly sold the dry cleaning business and disappeared. This is not such an unusual story.

Here’s what every financial professional needs to know about the Sweetheart Scam. Professional predators comb the obituaries for stories about the beloved widow or widower left behind. They look for those who have been with a deceased who was a business leader, a banker, a financially successful person. They choose the ones who may be likely targets, the survivors who have means. They scope out how to meet them and seize the opportunity to take advantage of loneliness.   They will stop at nothing to get in the door. And sooner or later they always need “a temporary loan” or a little help to get out of an unfortunate jam. If it works, they up the ante. This can go on until they have bankrupted a widow or widower. It will at least drain available cash if no one is watching.

That’s where you come in, the financial professional with the ability to notice when unusual withdrawals are coming out of your client’s account. Once the scammer has gotten control over your client’s emotions, it may be too late to stop the scam. Your client is “in love” or at least addicted to the showered on attention. She won’t believe your warning then. The heads-up must come early, before an opportunist has a chance to cast a spell.

Here’s the takeaway: any recently widowed client in your book is a potential target. Do these things:

  1. Gently raise the subject of being careful of any stranger he/she meets soon after the loss of a spouse. Warn with empathy and facts.
  2. If your client claims he’s met a “special someone” do some digging. Google the person he names. Ask a few probing questions. See what your client may not be able to see. Share the data you glean with your client.
  3. Be sure you have contact information for a family member or trusted friend of your client whom you can call if you see something suspicious. Call them if you think your client is in danger, particularly if your client doesn’t want to hear your warning.

That protective posture you take on can save your client from disaster.

Financial elder abuse takes many forms besides the Sweetheart Scam. It is called “the crime of the century”, it is so prevalent. With the right know-how, you can stop it and keep your clients safer.

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