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Seniors vulnerable to credit card fraud

By

To Her Credit
To Her Credit, Sally Herigstad
Sally Herigstad is a certified public accountant and the author of "Help! I Can't Pay My Bills: Surviving a Financial Crisis" (St. Martin's Press, 2006). She writes "To Her Credit," a weekly reader Q&A column about issues involving women, credit and debt, for CreditCards.com, and also writes regularly for MSN Money, Interest.com and Bankrate.com, and has guested on Martha Stewart Radio and other programs. See her website SallyHerigstad.com for more personal finance tips and free budgeting worksheets.
Ask Sally a question, or read her previous answers in the To Her Credit archive
Question

Dear To Her Credit,
Help! I read your post about a fraudulent credit card account. This very thing happened to my elderly 85-year-old grandfather. This has ruined his life.

He's never had a credit card in his life, being vehemently opposed to them. A home repair company worked their way into his home with false promises -- it would turn your stomach to hear all they said and did. He took them at their word, as is his nature, although he also checked out the company with the BBB. But the company was far from honest in everything that they said and did.

My grandfather only signed once, supposedly to provide his Social Security number for a credit check. The company started working on his home the next day, less than 24 hours after their unwanted solicitation, and caused $17,000 worth of damage to his home. They forged his name on a $10,000 GE Capital credit card application to pay themselves.

When we requested the credit card application from GE Capital, they responded that they do not have it. After we filed for fraud, GE sent a letter stating they received a copy of the application from the repair company's owner.

A banking attorney was finally able to stop GE Capital from hounding my elderly grandparent. This legal case has been going on for two years now and is set for trial. My grandparents still need their house repaired.

At one time, the repair company admitted their wrongdoing to our law firm and said they would erase the GE Capital debt and have a third party repair the home. Two years later, however, they have backed out of their promise.

My grandfather is elderly and frail. Both my grandparents went downhill after this, their golden years robbed from them. They can never regain the time they lost and trauma they were put through. Please if you have any advice you can share, our family would appreciate it greatly. We do not want anyone else's family to suffer and be defrauded in the horrible way my beloved grandparents have.  -- Jamie

Answer

Dear Jamie,
I'm so glad your grandparents have family willing to look out for them and fight for their rights. This is a clear case of elder abuse on the part of the "home repair" company. The miserable shysters, not content to bill your grandfather, have found a way to get paid via a phony credit card application.

As people get older, even when they are intellectually still very sharp, it seems to become more difficult for them to determine who they should trust and when. The rules they lived by don't always seem to apply now, and there are so many more ways to get into financial trouble now than there were 40 years ago. Perhaps that's why older people too often are taken by these crooks.

At this point, a lawyer working on your case can help far better than I can. In fact, if the only result of this crime had been the unauthorized credit card account, I wouldn't think you even need to get a lawyer and go to court. It seems to be a simple case -- your grandfather didn't apply for credit, end of story. However, due to the severity of the deception, the physical damage to your grandparents' home and the psychological damage they've endured, perhaps your lawyer is suing for punitive damages. I hope so. Money won't fix everything, but if it's the only remedy available, at least it punishes the bad guys and can help make a few things right for their victims.

Although you seem to have this case in hand, it provides a great lesson on how vigilant all of us need to be to avoid such scams. The whole debacle could have been avoided by following a few rules:

  • Don't buy anything from door-to-door salesmen or people who call you uninvited by phone. Many of them are innocent, of course. The bad ones, like these, have ruined it for everyone. I never let them inside my house, and the more they keep taking one step forward like I should let them in, the more quickly I shut and bolt the door.
  • Don't rely completely on the Better Business Bureau. A lack of complaints on that site does not mean it's a legitimate company. In addition, many company names sound the same or can be deliberately copied. BBB information is useful in addition to other research, but don't take lack of complaints as a stamp of approval.
  • Don't sign anything to allow someone to check your credit if you're not planning to take out a credit account.
  • Encourage older adults to get a second opinion from trusted family members before they get tangled up in new financial dealings. Nine times out of 10, there's nothing to worry about. That tenth time, however, an alert family member can prevent a catastrophe such as this one -- and the untold frustration, anger and fear that goes with it.

See related: Familiar fraud: When family and friends steal your identity

Meet CreditCards.com's reader Q&A experts
Vexed by a personal finance problem? CreditCards.com's Q&A experts answer questions from readers every weekday. Ask a question, or click on any expert to see their previous answers.
Gary Foreman, New Frugal You columnist Gary Foreman,
"New Frugal You"
Sally Herigstad, To Her Credit columnist Sally Herigstad,
"To Her Credit"
Tony Mecia, Cashing In columnist Tony Mecia,
"Cashing In"
Barry Paperno, Speaking of Credit columnist Barry Paperno,
"Speaking of Credit"
Elaine Pofeldt, Your Business Credit columnist Elaine Pofeldt,
"Your Business Credit"
Erica Sandberg, Opening Credits columnist Erica Sandberg,
"Opening Credits"

Published: August 22, 2014



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