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Protecting Mom from predatory credit practices is something I had to learn the hard way, but you don’t have to. A few simple actions through the three major credit bureaus can prevent trouble down the road.
Get Ahead of Credit Problems
We’ve all heard the pitch at the checkout line at just about any retail store these days. “Would you like to open a store credit card for 25% off your purchase today?” These days, I always say no, but there was a time, in my early twenties, when I never said no. I once had a wallet full of store cards. And so did Mom.
When I first started taking care of Mom, it seemed like I learned something new every day. It was a steep learning curve about the disease she has, the legalities of being her power of attorney, Medicare and how to manage her affairs. I will never say I’ve learned all there is to know, but that curve is much less steep these days. Back in October 2016, though, I got schooled on something that hadn’t even occurred to me.
One of the first things I had done when I took over Mom’s affairs was to close out the avalanche of store and bank credit cards she had. She never used them anyway, and the more cards she had out there, the greater chance for fraud if someone got hold of her information. This was especially true because Mom’s credit is excellent, so she had a ridiculous amount of total available credit.
It wasn’t a simple process to close out her cards. It was actually kind of a pain in the ass. I first had to get established as her power of attorney before I could close them. So, I sent out a lot of letters and did a lot of follow-up because not every organization accepts POA in the same way. But I managed it, patted myself on the back for a job well-done, and figured that was one thing on the to-do list I’d never have to worry about again.
Wrong. Mom was out shopping with one of her friends at Sears, and for a $13 purchase the clerk convinced her into opening up a new store credit card. And this was card I’d already closed!
I was furious. And very troubled. To someone who doesn’t know her, Mom doesn’t seem as though she has any cognitive dysfunction. All of her social skills are in tact, and to the unfamiliar eye she may just seem to be a little forgetful. How was I to protect her from this sort of thing without being with her constantly or giving her trusted friends crib notes?
I wasn’t sure, but the first thing I did was to call the store to talk to a manager. I wanted to give him a piece of my mind, but I also wanted to know how Mom had been targeted so I could keep her from being targeted again. Can they see that she had a card once that had been recently closed? No. That isn’t how it works at the checkout. They just know that she doesn’t have an account at the moment. And clerks earn bonuses for every card they convince a customer to open.
I told the manager I was not happy, that my mother has dementia and that I had closed her card with his store for a reason. In a retirement town like Sarasota, I wanted to know how they trained their staff to be aware that the person they are waiting on may not have full capacity. The answer was they don’t do any training. They just incentivize staff to pitch revolving high balance, high interest credit. Mom’s limit on this new card was $6,000 and her APR on purchases was 25.49%! And I couldn’t even close it right away. I had to wait for the first billing cycle.
To the Google Machine
There are a lot of articles on line about how to prevent fraud against the elderly. Most offered advice I already knew, like Do Not Call registries, monitoring financial activity and identity theft protection. But I needed to know how to protect Mom from herself. Through a bunch of searching I learned about freezing credit through the credit bureaus. I’m not going to go into how it works or the mechanism to accomplish it. There are enough articles out there to explain it, and I don’t need to rehash it. (And I’ve included links below to each bureau.) But I highly recommend that you do a little research if you are caring for someone in Mom’s condition.
Suffice it to say, though, freezing credit wasn’t something I’d ever heard of until it was too late. So, Mom’s credit is now frozen, and has been for over a year. It’s given me a great piece of mind when I’m not with her that she can’t be taken advantage of by predatory credit practices.
At least not this particular kind of predatory practice. There’s always another scam, and I just hope I nip the next one in the bud first.