Increased Internet access putting elderly at higher risk of exploitation

November 25, 2015 at 11:52 AM


By Henry Chellew

Higher levels of Internet and email usage by the elderly has a dark side, as vulnerable seniors find themselves increasingly vulnerable to sophisticated Internet scams and fraudsters, and without adequate protection from the legal system. 

The reality is that the law is not keeping up with the risks and dangers posed by our pervasive digital culture. 

It is difficult for families and other responsible persons to act when elderly loved ones are targeted by fraudsters and other unscrupulous people (online and offline) because there are a number of hoops that they have to jump through, and not all are effective – legal costs themselves can result in inertia.

The rising number of very sophisticated Internet scams is good enough to fool some digital natives, let alone those who are elderly or who lack sufficient mental capacity to enter into a contractual relationship.

One of the reasons I raise this topic is because I was contacted by an elderly client concerning an email that she received from a so-called Spanish lottery, telling her that her deceased husband had purchased a ticket and he was now a winner. 

The amount involved was huge and I had great difficulty persuading her that she should not send them the ‘agent’s facilitation fee’. She was only convinced once I was able to come up with a an almost identical letter listed on a site warning against the scam.

The job is a lot harder when the senior person lacks sufficient mental capacity, for example where they might suffer from Alzheimer’s or short-term memory loss.

Many families think that having power-of-attorney is a protection. It is not. It only means that the person with the POA can act on that person’s behalf.

Protecting family members is tough. I’ve had instances where there has been a decline in mental health, where for example, the senior person has suddenly started suddenly gambling heavily or become fixated with an Internet scammer.

The law requires the family to persuade that senior person to consent to a medical examination. Then the medical practitioner needs to be convinced that the problem is bad enough to warrant legal intervention – bearing in mind that there are various forms and degrees to mental health problems like Alzheimer’s.

The danger is that the senior person with even a smidgen of mental capacity can become angry and revoke the family power-of-attorney. I’ve seen this kind of thing, involving Internet scammers, end with tragic consequences where the husband of a woman who was caught up in an Internet scam took his own life. 

If it can be proven that the senior person lacks the mental capacity to enter into a contractual relationship, the family or responsible parties can apply to the Family Court for a property manager to be appointed under the protection of Personal Property Rights Act 1988.

The property manager will be able to remove the at risk person’s access to bank accounts and credit cards. A notice will have to be sent to their bank to make it clear that the 'at risk person' has no authority to transact banking business. It is an extreme step, but unfortunately it is the only thing you can do. 

I think there is a loophole where people can be exploited, because sometimes the costs of going to court to return something that somebody has done may outweigh the cost of the damage that has been done. There is a degree of inertia there that these people will exploit. 

Regardless, it is always a good idea to take legal advice so you have the correct facts to make the right decision. 

In this age of Internet and email it is now even more important that families focus on staying in even closer contact with senior and vulnerable family members.

Increased communication, monitoring, supervising and advising is needed, especially if the senior person has a computer with access to the Internet. I think a frank discussion about the variety of scams and risks out there is a given, and get them some robust virus protection for their computer. Younger people are savvy to these risks, but older people might not be.