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What to do if a member of your family is being scammed

Annie Shaw / 09 July 2013 ( 13 March 2017 )

A worried reader fears that her father is being ripped off by someone he met on holiday. Saga Magazine's money expert Annie Shaw shares her concerns.

Passport, money and a map
Watch out for scams and scammers

A reader writes: Three or four years ago my father went on a coach trip to Eastern Europe. During one of the 'days off'” from the organised tour, when he was wandering round a city centre by himself, he struck up a conversation with a local woman in a cafe. They exchanged addresses and after he returned to the UK they wrote to each other.

That they were pen friends has never been a secret, but I have recently discovered that my father has been sending this woman money – often quite large sums. My father has only his pension to live on, and sending the cash is putting him into hardship. 

As far as I know there is no romantic involvement between them, and she seems to be very much younger than him, although, I have to say, no husband seems to be in evidence. Her letters do, however, talk about an extended family, and I have recently learned that my father has been financing – among other things – medical treatment, university fees and a wedding for various members of it. To make matters worse, my father always sends cash by post, as the woman says she “doesn’t like banks”, so the money is virtually untraceable.

While I acknowledge that my father is a free agent and can spend his money on what and whomsoever he pleases, I am worried that he is being scammed. 

What do you think, and what can I do?

Seven ways to spot a scam

Annie Shaw replies: You are right to be concerned. Unfortunately, short of visiting this woman yourself you are never going to be able to discover if she is a genuine friend or a scammer – and even if you did make the trip you still might not get your answer.

It is also, as you recognise, none of your business how your father spends his money although you no doubt feel protective of your parent and don’t want someone to take advantage of his good nature.

Of course, this woman may be completely genuine, but this sort of scam is as old as the hills, and used throughout the world. The hustler may be a pleasant woman in a cafe, a child tour guide in an Arab souk or a hotel employee in the Far East. There’s usually some initial approach, such as a request for help with writing a letter in English, then the sob story. How much the scammer gets away with depends on how soft the mark’s heart is and how deep his pockets. Managing to get money for alleged medical treatment, education and wedding celebrations is going some.

The fact that the woman demands cash is also a good indicator that something isn’t right. A request for a wire transfer, such as Western Union, would also arouse suspicion in my mind. Your father is not alone in falling victim to this type of “elder abuse”. 

'Mailing scammers' and so-called 'romance scammers' prey on the vulnerable, and this sounds like a variant. The Think Jessica organisation - - which campaigns against mailing and lottery prize scams, describes the extent of the problem on its website.

Don't fall victim to romance fraud

Even if the woman your father writes to is completely genuine, it is not your father’s job to support her and her family. You did mention in your letter the name of the city where you father met the woman. All I can say is that her country is a member of the EU and she can travel abroad to work to support her family, as thousands of her countrymen have done and will no doubt continue to do so, if her need is that great. She doesn’t need to take donations from an old man. 

If she is unable to travel, there are charities that are better placed to offer assistance than elderly British men sending bundles of cash through the post – an unsafe practice at the best of times.

If you raise your concerns with your father you are almost certain to meet with resistance. First, this woman is his so-called friend. He clearly gets pleasure from believing that he is helping her – feeling useful and protective, as he no doubt once was to his own family. Cutting off contact with her could leave him feeling quite lonely and bereft if his regular letters from her and his trips to the Post Office to send her the bundles of cash are giving him an interest and a purpose.

He will also no doubt be highly defensive and deny anything could possibly be amiss. Even if he secretly suspects that he is being had he won’t want to admit it either to himself or to you for fear of looking a fool.

You need, therefore, to be very cautious about how you proceed and take care not to alienate your father. His attachment to this woman is undoubtedly the result of something missing in his life – companionship, a feeling of usefulness, the ability to fulfil the role of protector. He may even just be bored and considers this woman to be an interest. You are going to have to find out what gap this woman is filling and find something else to replace it.

There are some suggestions here on this American elder care website about what you can do.

Meanwhile, you could suggest your father who clearly has a generous nature, donates more modest sums to a charity such as Care International or the Red Cross that help families in distress instead of sending just one woman amounts of cash that it appears he cannot afford.

Ultimately it is his money to spend as he wishes, but if and when he realises he has been scammed the longer it has gone on the worse he will feel, so I do urge you to intervene – but with care and tact.

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.

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