Seniors and Financial Scams: When Traditional Workshops Aren't Working

Steph Waite, Communications Coordinator /
Photo: Online Fraud by Don Hankinson on Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Consumers lost a total of $905 million to fraud in 2017, according to the Federal Trade Commission’s 2017 Consumer Sentinel Network Data Book. The FTC fielded 1.1 million fraud reports last year, with fraudulent debt collection, identify theft, and imposter scams accounting for nearly half of the reports. Yet, Kim Gile, Community Reference Manager at the Kansas City Public Library in Kansas City, Missouri, says that of all the financial literacy workshops her library has offered, the one on identity theft was among the most poorly attended.

Gile attracted the highest attendance for financial literacy workshops on topics such as retirement planning, social security, and living wills and trusts—topics people know they need. When it comes to financial scams, people don’t know what they don’t know, and they tend to not seek information until they become victims.

Gile’s experience isn’t unique. Maria Buhl, Department Head of Programs and Services at Guilderland Public Library in Guilderland, New York, says her library’s presentation on financial scams by experts from a local bank was sparsely attended in comparison to other library-sponsored offerings.

Yet, when a local state senator held his own presentation using library space? “A whopping 140 people attended,” says Buhl. “We had a line out the door.” Buhl speculates that the state senator’s wide network of engaged constituents, along with a press release helped to draw a crowd.

The lack of attendance for these programs seems inverse to what’s become a large problem. Those 1.1 million scams logged by the Consumer Sentinel Network are just the ones being reported. The National Adult Protective Services Association estimates that only 1 in 44 cases of elder financial abuse are ever reported, and the National Center on Elder Abuse estimates that 90% of perpetrators are family members or people the victims know well. The shame of being “taken in” by a scam, as well as reluctance to report someone they know, can prevent seniors from reaching out for assistance.

One of the best ways to prevent financial fraud and identity theft is to get the word out about what to watch for. But how, when attendance for presentations is low? Here are some suggestions for boosting attendance at a traditional program, as well as alternative ways to get information into the hands of those who need it.

6 Ways to Raise Awareness for Financial Scams among Seniors

1.  Partner with an Influencer

While library-sponsored program at Guilderland Public Library attracted single-digit attendees, the state senator drew in serious numbers. Partner with a local “celebrity,” or anyone who has a significant following to promote or host your program. 

2.  Sneak It In

When you host a financial program that’s well attended by seniors, such as estate or retirement planning, include a segment about financial scams and how to avoid them, rather than making it the focus of your program. Share a handout with tips for protecting yourself and the warning signs of a scam. You can also leave these handouts at a display table along with books on financial literacy.

3.  Facebook Live Videos

Interview an expert for a Facebook Live video. This will allow people to watch and ask questions as it happens, or to check it out later. Include a contact number for those who have been a victim of a scam to call for help. Continue to promote the video as a supplement when you have other related programming.

4.  Newspaper Ads

According to the News Media Alliance, the median age for daily newspaper readers is 57.9. Place an ad in the local paper with tips for seniors. Be sure to include your library’s logo on the ad and a contact number for people seeking more information. You can also use the ad to promote a financial literacy workshop if you have one.

5.  Staff Training

Money is a sensitive subject. Bring in an expert to train your staff on how to talk with (and listen to) patrons about financial issues so that one-on-one interactions are not missed opportunities to help someone. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has resources for libraries that includes posters, bookmarks, handouts, and tips.

6.  Target a Broader Age Range

Marty Johannes, Career and Finance Librarian at the Johnson County Library in Kansas, suggests broadening your target audience for traditionally senior-focused programs. “Since our Senior Services Librarian retired several years ago, JCL has been intentionally moving away from offering programs targeted exclusively to/for seniors,” says Johannes. “The thinking behind this is that our programs can/should appeal and be of value to adults across the age spectrum.”

Now is a great time to plan for Money Smart Week. Learn how libraries can participate, and check out these webinars in the WebJunction course catalog for programming ideas.

When I’m 64: Financial Literacy Resources for Those Nearing and in Retirement

Making Cents of Financial Literacy: Tech Tools and Innovative Programs

Libraries Help Patrons Become Financially Empowered Consumers

Additional Resources

Top 10 Financial Scams Targeting Seniors, National Council on Aging

Fraud in the Family,

The Public Library Association’s financial literacy guides for libraries