A few days ago, I had a weird call with my dad. He had called me at lunchtime to discuss a new friend he’d made, one that he wanted me to call. It all started when he’d gotten a text message apparently in error (the “apparently” will be made clear) addressed to someone named Sunday. In the text, the sender apologized for their mutual father’s inability to send money directly, but asked Sunday to pls sell off some mobile recharge cards whose numbers were included in the text, as that was what was available. The text was signed off by someone named Ojo. Being the good Samaritan he is, my dad called the number and informed Ojo that the text had been sent to the wrong person. Ojo as expected was very grateful and showered my dad with all manners of praises and thank you messages, telling him that he was astonished that such honest people still existed. Ojo then claimed that his own father would like to thank him directly. My dad agreed and then a very elderly voice came on the line and began praying and wishing my dad all sorts of good things in this life and the next.
This would have all been okay if it had just ended there, however the elderly man hinted that he was a deeply spiritual person, and it had been ‘revealed’ to him that my dad had an issue. My dad initially mentioned his failing eyesight and they prayed for that. But the elderly man insisted that he felt that there was something more to the matter. This is when it took a bit of a turn. He asked for my dad’s full name and for the name of my paternal grandmother, claiming that the prayers work when the full names and some histories are involved. They also asked him to tell his son to call them so they could also pray for him. Cue my dad making the call to me. As fortitude would have it, I had also received the exact text the previous day, but in my case I’m a bit of a sceptic and reasoned that it may be a scam. My reasoning was simple; if it was a scam and I ignored it, the scammer would move on. However, if it was legitimate, the needy recipient would likely call the sender and sort it out.
As soon as I mentioned that I’d gotten the same text, all his prior inquisitiveness vanished and he began to recall other things about the calls, including the fact that he’d noticed that the voices were quite similar and that they had been quite fulsome with their prayers and all that. In a nutshell, he blocked the number, and we have engaged his bank to ensure that no hanky-panky occurs. This is especially as they’d obtained his full name, mother’s maiden name and who knows what else? While going over this near-miss later in the day, he reminded me that my mum had fallen prey to a minor scam sometime in early-2022, after which I had implored them to call me in case they received any investment advice or any other unusual contact like this one. Not up to two months after my warning, she had almost been pressured into investing in some cryptocurrencies. In this case, some Catholic priest was the main salesman and most of her office colleagues were investing heavily. I had admonished her, based on my understanding of how crypto had performed in 2022, to avoid it completely, which thankfully she had. Ruminating over these recent events, and despite being happy that the safeguard, i.e., “when in doubt call your son” had worked, it got me thinking, “Why do so many scams now target the elderly?”
In hindsight, this question is kind of self-explanatory. Most retired elderly parents have certain similarities. They have disposable income, are not tech savvy (WhatsApp message forwarding champions), have less going on due to retirement i.e., are somewhat lonely and last of all, have less energy to chase after lost money. These factors make them especially susceptible to being hustled by scammers of all sorts.
A quick google search on elder scams shows that Nigeria is neither immune to such scams nor are we trailblazers in this area. In the US, some of the more prevalent scams include Tech support scams, Phone scams, Lottery scams, Government impersonation scams, Fake investment scams, Anti-aging and other medically related scams, Fake charity scams and my personal favourite, the Grandparent scam (where some scammer impersonates a grandchild and requests for money, usually with a plea not to tell anyone). The total losses to senior scams in the US in 2021 is estimated at ~$1.7 billion dollars.
For people with aged parents, this is both a matter of concern and a call to action. At first glance it would seem imperative that enough awareness is created to prevent similar scams. However, this is not as easy as it would seem. For starters, most children of retired parents who are now within the 30–45+year age range usually have their own young families and may not have as much time to monitor their own parents. Also, parenting styles in the 70s, 80s and 90s were quite strict in many homes leaving young adults with little or no convivial relationships with their parents. As such, current retirees may not always be able to confide in their children either when they make mistakes or when they are in doubt. Lastly, for those who even have good relationships with their parents, there’s also the aspect of unwanted dependency — as some elderly parents resist having to be dependent on people having been self-reliant for the most basic things for most of their lives. In extreme cases some take very rash decisions just to show everyone that they still got it, even remaining defiant when called out, like that line from the song Iris by the band Goo-Goo dolls, ‘Yeah you bleed just to know, you’re alive.’
In my case, while I have a decent relationship with my parents, I realised only after they’d fallen for one or two minor scams in the last 2–3years that they weren’t really confiding in me. I then realised that the only way to reach them was to first understand the big picture and then to be relatable. For me, the big picture came when I was able to relate getting old to becoming a teenager once more, but in reverse. Teenage years are the bridge to adulthood and full physical development, while on the other hand I can imagine that aging is the reverse. That vibrant body that you discovered in your teens could do so many things, begins to betray you bit by bit each day. Understanding this gave me empathy for them and the ‘defiance’ with which they grudgingly accepted each bit of dependency they were forced to need. Relatability came from mentioning a few mistakes I’d made, specifically some scams that I and some friends had fallen for, and how we had learnt our lessons. I ended my story by telling them that not only do I make mistakes, but that whenever I’m in doubt on some information I call and ask a few friends for help just to show that I’m not some all-knowing person.
Just so the discussions don’t seem one sided, I also made efforts to ask for some advice on other topics from them, thereby making them feel appreciated. Since then, they call me whenever (at least I hope so) some so-called investment idea comes up to ask for my advice. So far, this arrangement is going quite well, let’s hope it stays that way…