Economists say baby boomers age 70 and older hold the greatest wealth of any generation to date. Increasingly, that wealth is the target of financial fraud, or scams. During the pandemic, as older people are relying increasingly on telephones and the internet to stay connected socially and to access services, scammers are using those same technologies, resulting in hundreds of millions of dollars lost to fraud.
To address this growing concern, two UMass Boston gerontology researchers will work with close to 400 Massachusetts aging services organizations to learn how the agencies are helping their clients avoid scams, what measures they are taking to protect their clients during online interactions, and which practices best limit the risks of fraud while using technology.
The project is supported by an academic research grant from the Borchard Foundation Center on Law & Aging. Leading the work are Anna-Marie Tabor, director of the Gerontology Institute’s Pension Action Center (PAC) and an adjunct professor at UMass Law, and Elizabeth Dugan, associate professor of gerontology, whose research on healthy aging includes a great deal of statewide data collection and analysis in partnership with councils on aging and other related organizations.
The project grew out of observations by Tabor’s staff during the pandemic that older people are increasingly vulnerable to scams that find them on the internet, through email, text, and by phone. PAC clients started asking Tabor and the center’s staff about how to identify and avoid scams. As a legal services organization, the center and its attorneys take to heart the need to protect their clients against these crimes.
“As part of the Gerontology Institute, we are uniquely situated to examine how elder service providers across the service spectrum are using technology,” says Tabor, noting that the work opens new territory for the PAC, which focuses on recovering missing retirement benefits for its clients. “The Institute’s extensive relationships across Massachusetts allow us to conduct a wide-scale survey and to share best practices across aging services sectors.”
In the first phase of the project, the researchers will ask the state’s 350 Councils on Aging, 31 Area Agencies on Aging, and 7 legal aid organizations what measures they are taking to protect against and respond to scams; what technologies they are using to provide their services remotely, and how they use them; how their technology use has changed during the pandemic; and what additional resources are needed.
“Aging service organizations are a key resource in addressing financial fraud and exploitation,” says Dugan. “Organizations with expertise in providing social or legal services are not necessarily equipped to address complicated issues of financial fraud on their own.”
Following the survey, the researchers will work to identify best practices for service providers. Are they providing educational materials or other ways for their clients to learn about the risks of financial fraud, exploitation, and abuse? Are they developing and implementing policies and procedures for their organizations to protect their clients’ sensitive personal information as they collect or store it electronically?
“We’ll likely identify gaps where more study and development of new policies and procedures are necessary,” Tabor says. With additional funding, future phases of the project could focus on promoting communication and collaboration among the study participants, activities that could include hosting a convening at the University of Massachusetts Boston.