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Food for thought at your Thanksgiving table

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It’s almost Thanksgiving, and like most Americans, I’m looking forward to eating all my favorite holiday dishes and spending some quality time with my family. This year I’ve got it easy. I’ll be spending my holiday going to see the latest blockbuster movie with my kids while my sister-in-law worries about whether the turkey is done. My teenaged nieces will help me set up some social media accounts and will probably laugh at my clueless questions, all while my son regales us with tales from his latest job.

Thanksgiving will also be a time for family conversations about serious matters. Thanksgiving is a great time to touch base with your family and make sure that everyone is doing well, physically, mentally, and financially.

Everyone at the dinner table will have a story

  • A dear friend’s husband wired thousands of dollars when a caller claimed that his daughter was in jail and needed bail money.
  • An older relative, who just turned 97, can no longer manage his finances. Now that his wife is gone, my husband is handling the older man’s money and property.
  • Another relative recently fell for a lottery scam, and we need to help her avoid frauds and scams in the future.

Fortunately, I’ll have lots of tips and tools to share with everyone, because I work at the only office in the federal government specifically dedicated to the financial health of older Americans, the Office for Older Americans at CFPB.

Managing someone else’s money

First, I’ll give my husband the Managing Someone Else’s Money guides. Like millions of Americans, he’s managing money and property for a loved one who is unable to pay bills or make financial decisions. This can be very overwhelming. But, it’s also a great opportunity to help someone you care about, and protect them from scams and fraud. There are four guides for four types of fiduciaries (people with legal authority to handle someone else’s money)—agents under a power of attorney; court-appointed guardians of property; trustees; and government fiduciaries (Social Security representative payees and VA fiduciaries).

My husband can read the guide for agents under a power of attorney. It covers:

  • An overview of his four duties, providing concrete examples and tips
  • Information on how to spot financial exploitation and scams, and who to contact if you do
  • Resources to find additional help

Protecting against scams and fraud

My relative is embarrassed that she fell for a lottery scam when a nice young man called her repeatedly and acted like her new best friend. She’s not alone, and she should speak out to her peers so they don’t become victims. Our Money Smart for Older Adults resource guide will teach her about a variety of scams and frauds that are out in the community right now and help her to be financially prepared for disasters. The CFPB is currently training leaders across the country to deliver this curriculum to older adults, their caregivers and other service providers in their communities.

Assisting living and nursing facilities

Another family member is a geriatric social worker who makes house calls at assisted living facilities. I’ll encourage her to give the staff at the facilities she visits CFPB’s new manual for assisted living and nursing facilities on how to protect residents from financial exploitation. These residents are especially vulnerable to scams and exploitation because many have Alzheimer’s disease or other cognitive impairments.

So, as you prepare to enjoy your turkey, your pumpkin pie, and all of your traditions, consider using this Thanksgiving gathering to share some food for thought as well! You can order single or bulk copies of these guides for free.

Four things older Americans can do about debt collection problems

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If you’re an older American and you’re having trouble with debt collectors, you’re not alone. Since July 2013, older Americans have submitted approximately 8,700 complaints to us about debt collection.

We looked at these complaints and described the most common problems that consumers are experiencing in our snapshot of debt collection complaints submitted by older consumers.

People’s complaints often express grief, confusion, and frustration regarding the collection of medical debt, debt of deceased family members, and even suspicious calls from individuals who claim to be collectors.

Here’s what you or your loved ones can do when experiencing debt collection problems:

1. Get more information if you don’t recognize the debt

Older consumers report that debt collectors may have inaccurate or inadequate information, and sometimes don’t provide sufficient information to help them identify the debt. Almost one-third of the older consumers who submitted a complaint couldn’t identify the debt being collected.

First things first! Ask the debt collector for the company’s name and address. If the debt collector refuses to give you this information, you may be dealing with a fraud. If you think that a caller may be a fake debt collector:

Ask the caller for his or her name, company, street address, telephone number, and professional license number.

If you have the company’s name and address but you don’t recognize the debt, ask for more information in writing. You can start by using this sample letter.

Send this letter as soon as you can — if at all possible, within 30 days of when a debt collector contacts you the first time about a debt.

2. Dispute the debt if it’s not yours or if the amount is wrong

You can write a letter disputing the debt or any portion of the debt. It’s important to do so as soon as possible after you’re first contacted, and to keep copies of any letters you send.

If you dispute a debt (or part of a debt) in writing within 30 days of when you receive the required information from the debt collector, the debt collector cannot call or contact you until after the debt collector has obtained verification of the debt and has provided the verification of the debt in writing to you. You can use this sample letter.

3. Stop harassing and/or offensive calls

Older consumers told us that debt collectors sometimes refuse to take “No” for an answer, reporting in their complaints that collectors often use offensive language and make threats. To one extreme, we’ve also heard about collectors making successive calls using profanity or derogatory names.

You don’t have to put up with it. You can send a letter to the debt collector telling it to stop contacting you. If you dispute the amount due, or you don’t believe that it’s your debt, put that in the letter, too. You can use this sample letter.

Telling a debt collector to stop contacting you does not stop the collection, including the filing of a lawsuit against you or reporting negative information to a credit reporting company.

4. Know your rights: Your federal benefits have many protections from garnishment in collection

Many older consumers rely on Social Security or other federal benefits and frequently complained that debt collectors threatened them with garnishment of these benefits. Most federal benefits, such as Social Security, Veterans’ (VA) benefits, and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits, are protected in debt collection. There are exceptions for, among other things, money owed in child support, spousal support, federal student loans, or for federal taxes.

When you receive federal benefits by direct deposit to your checking account, your bank or credit union is required automatically to protect up to two months of these benefits that are directly deposited into your account. If you receive your benefits on a government issued prepaid card, they usually are protected too. Some exceptions may exist for debts owed to a federal or state agency.

If you’re not sure if your federal benefits are being wrongfully garnished, you should seek legal advice.

Here’s how you can find a lawyer:

Learn more about your rights when it comes to debt collection.

You can also:

  • Submit a debt collection complaint online or by calling (855) 411-2372. We’ll forward your issue to the company and work to get you a response, give you a tracking number, and keep you updated on the status of your complaint.
  • Tell us your story, good or bad, about your experience with consumer financial products. We hear from many Americans every day and we’d like to hear your story.

Resources in Spanish that could help thousands of older Hispanics spot financial exploitation and scams

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Elder financial exploitation crosses all social, economic and cultural boundaries. Older Hispanics, like other older adults, increasingly are targets of financial abuse and scams by a broad spectrum of perpetrators. A 2012 study found that 17 percent of Hispanic seniors are victims of financial exploitation, and that limited English proficiency is a factor that contributes to the vulnerability of older Hispanics.

Nearly 1.5 million – or two-in-five- older Hispanics have limited English language proficiency and speak Spanish only. Their limited access to trusted information and resources in Spanish hampers their ability to detect, respond to and report abuse.

We have Spanish versions of two resources that can help Spanish-speaking seniors, their family members and other caregivers, and the professionals and organizations that work with them:

  • Money Smart para Adultos Mayores (Money Smart for Older Adults) – an educational program with the FDIC that teaches older adults and their caregivers how to spot scams and frauds, and prevent financial exploitation. The translated guide can be used as a self-study guide or delivered as a training in a group setting.

These resources are available in English and Spanish for download and free print copies are also available.

Updated reverse mortgage guide: Two things you should know

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More and more homeowners are considering tapping their home equity as they approach retirement age. Getting a reverse mortgage is one way that some older homeowners can do that. Reverse mortgages are a special type of home equity loan sold to homeowners aged 62 years and older, which are repaid when the borrowers sell the home, move out, or die. It’s a complicated type of loan that works best for homeowners who carefully consider all of their options.

Things to consider

Before borrowing, seniors and their families should consider:

  • The cost of homeowners’ insurance and taxes
  • Plans for staying in the home or leaving it to family members
  • Plans for dependents or others living in the home
  • Alternatives to reverse mortgages

Because some important things about reverse mortgages have changed recently, we’ve updated our guide to reverse mortgages.

First-year payout limits

One of these changes limits the amount of money you can draw from your loan in the first year. Borrowers often get into trouble by taking a lump-sum payment early on. It may feel great to get a big payment up front, but borrowers can outlive this money – which spells financial trouble for borrowers who live longer lives.

This limit encourages borrowers to make their money last longer. Borrowers can still take out lump-sum single payments – but this is still a risky choice. Borrowers should strongly consider the monthly payment or line of credit options before choosing to get a lump-sum. These options provide more long-term security than lump-sum payments.

Protections for non-borrowing spouses

Another important change is for couples considering a reverse mortgage. In the past, couples who took out a reverse mortgage loan in the name of only one spouse ran into trouble when the borrowing spouse passed away. When a borrower died, the “non-borrowing spouse” had to pay back the reverse mortgage or move out. Many surviving spouses were surprised to learn this, and lost their homes. With recent changes, a non-borrowing spouse may be able continue to live in the home under certain conditions, even after the spouse who signed the loan passes away. However, the non-borrowing spouse will still stop receiving money from the reverse mortgage after his or her spouse dies.

For couples considering a reverse mortgage, borrowing together makes more sense. If both spouses sign the reverse mortgage, then the surviving spouse can continue to receive monthly payments or use an existing line of credit. It also ensures that a surviving spouse may live in the home after his or her spouse (co-borrower) dies.

These changes help protect reverse mortgage borrowers, but make no mistake—reverse mortgages are still not right for everyone and can be risky and expensive. If you’re considering a reverse mortgage, get the information you need to make an informed decision and give yourself time to weigh your options.

Check out our guide to reverse mortgages for older homeowners and their families.

Plan and protect your finances with a my Social Security account

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Whether you’re one of the millions of workers who pay Social Security taxes or the 50 million retired Americans and dependents who receive benefits, it’s good to keep track of your Social Security benefits.

National My Social Security Week takes place August 17 to 23 — the perfect time to take a step toward creating an online account with the Social Security Administration at www.socialsecurity.gov/myaccount. This account will give you secure and convenient online access to your personal Social Security information, including your earnings records and estimated benefits. If you already receive Social Security benefits, you can change your address and phone number, get a benefit verification letter and start or change direct deposit information.

This website has information to help you plan for your future and protect your finances with:

  • Estimates of your monthly retirement and disability benefits, including how much more you could get if you delay your retirement.
  • Estimates of monthly survivors’ benefits for a spouse and children.
  • Essential information needed to create a retirement budget, make decisions about other financial resources, and even decide if delaying your retirement is the right choice for you. This is helpful if you’re among the thousands of people reaching age 62 and making decisions about whether to claim Social Security.
  • Summary of your earnings and Social Security taxes you’ve paid. Because your Social Security eligibility and benefits depend on these factors, this gives you the chance to check that the information on your earnings record is correct. You could also spot fraud or misuse of your Social Security number. In fact, opening an account prevents others from doing it without your authorization.

Creating a my Social Security account online is quick, safe, easy, and free. Set yours up today!

We’re helping long-term care facilities protect older Americans from financial exploitation

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We’ve heard a lot of stories about vulnerable adults falling prey to con artists, family members, fiduciaries, and professional advisers who steal their nest eggs and threaten their financial security.

A son steals $315,000 from his elderly mother’s retirement accounts and frequents casinos. When he doesn’t pay his mother’s rent, she’s evicted from her assisted living facility.

The pastor of a 77-year-old man with Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases makes 130 withdrawals from the man’s bank account but fails to make nursing home payments on his behalf for nine months. The man was nearly discharged from his nursing home.

These stories are all too common. We’d like to equip assisted living and nursing facility staff with the know-how to prevent and spot the warning signs of abuse, so we’re releasing a guide to protecting residents from financial exploitation.

Our action-oriented guide gives staff the tools to:

  • Prevent financial exploitation and scams by educating staff, residents, and family members about warning signs and precautions
  • Recognize, record, and report financial abuse as early as possible using a model protocol and a team approach
  • Get help from first responders in the community

What you can do

If your family member or friend lives in an assisted living or a nursing facility, share this manual with the administrator and professional staff. You may want to read it as well to learn some of the signs of financial exploitation and where to go for help.

Some signs of abuse

Here are some warning signs that a long-term care resident is being financially exploited or abused:

  • Possessions disappear from a resident’s room or apartment
  • Resident pressured to make a decision or sign a document “now”
  • A previously uninvolved person claims authority to manage a resident’s care and/or finances but does not provide documentation
  • Unpaid facility bills
  • Resident’s checkbook or check register shows checks made out to “cash” frequently or check numbers out of sequence
  • Frequent or costly gifts to facility staff or volunteers

Order your free single or bulk copies of the guide to protecting residents from financial exploitation.