My 91-year-old dad was home alone when he received “that phone call”. You know the one… “There’s been suspicious activity on your credit card.”

He thought it was legit. He believed it when the caller said there had been suspicious activity on his card. He believed she was calling to help.

In fact, when Dad called to tell me about it, his words were, “I just got the nicest call…”

He was wrong. So very wrong.

The “nice caller” asked for his credit card number “to verify the fraud”, and he gave it to her. Why wouldn’t he? She was so kind, so helpful! Then she asked if he’d like her to “check any other accounts”. Sure! Why not?!?! He gave her several more account  numbers. She thanked him, assured him they’d take care of it, and hung up.

Luckily he called right away to share his good news with me. I immediately sent the police to his house and, with their help, Dad was able to report the potential fraud before any transactions were charged to his accounts.

A tour of Dad’s wallet was an eye-opening experience. My dad didn’t just have one or two cards. Dad had a dozen cards — Grocery stores, gas stations, department stores and more. Mom was in a nursing home, but her wallet still had more than a dozen  cards. The opportunity for widespread credit card fraud was too horrifying to imagine.

We took steps right away to make sure nothing like this could ever happen again, and they’re something every family should consider. What can you do?

Several things, actually, but you will need to work together with your parent.

If you suspect fraudulent activity on your parent’s account, CALL THE POLICE AND REPORT IT IMMEDIATELY. A police report is your first line of defense.

Then, if there is no outstanding balance, close unused or unnecessary accounts. To do this, you and your parent must call each credit card company and speak to an actual person. Trust me when I say your elderly parent will probably not be able to do this alone. Those automated systems are designed to frustrate the caller and prevent any personal contact. Once you’re in the automated system, just keep hitting “0” until an actual person answers. I made the calls for Dad, got through to a person, explained why we were calling & handed Dad the phone. He told the customer service representative his password and gave permission for me to do the talking. Then I cancelled the card. If they needed confirmation for anything, I’d put him back on the phone.

Never assume. Close ALL unnecessary accounts.

Because we knew she wouldn’t be using them again we also called and cancelled all of Mom’s cards. Some people assume an account will be closed if it’s inactive, but they would be wrong. Many inactive accounts can sit “dormant” for years, and scammers will be happy to use them for internet shopping sprees or that trip they’ve always wanted to take to Paris.

We opted to keep only two of Dad’s accounts open, but we made a few changes in the way they were set up.

First of all, we added my name and phone number as the #1 contact for the active accounts. They were still in Dad’s name only, and I did not have any authorization to use them. I was just the first contact person in case there were any problems.

Next, we put flags on the accounts. For Dad’s two remaining accounts, I told the credit card representatives that Dad never traveled and he never shopped online. His activity was fairly predictable – groceries, gas, golf, medicine, restaurants. If any unusual activity popped up, it would trigger a flag and decline the transaction.

Did it work? Yes, indeed. We learned how the flags worked when we ordered a headstone for Mom’s grave and tried to charge the transaction. It “coded” in the system as “retail/other”, and the charge was declined until we called and approved it over the phone. The credit card rep was truly sorry for the trouble (since we were dealing with a sensitive purchase), but I told her the flag had done exactly what it was supposed to do. It declined a potentially fraudulent transaction until authorization was received from the card holder.

Finally, we lowered the limit on the open accounts. Did you know you can do that? You would be shocked if you add up the “available credit” limit on your parent’s (or your own) charge cards. Think about it. My dad had a dozen cards, and the limit on each of them was probably $8,000-10,000. The potential fraud could have totaled more than $100,000. We lowered both open accounts to a comfortable limit — one that would dramatically restrict anyone who attempted to defraud him.

The outcome of this episode could have been financial disaster.

Dad’s story had a happy ending, but only because he called to tell me about “the nice lady” who had called and because I insisted on notifying the police. If he hadn’t told me, or if he’d waited until the next day to tell me…. I can’t imagine how much damage would have been done.

To be certain you’ve caught all of the open accounts, you would be wise to run a free credit report online. There may be open accounts your parent has forgotten, or there may be unauthorized accounts opened in your parent’s name.

One more level of security. A friend told me that a stranger with the same name as hers had tried to withdraw money from her account at the bank. The stranger showed ID with the correct name, but the stranger didn’t know the security password my friend requires for every transaction. Fraud averted. Some banks will allow you to set up a security password on your accounts. This is a password required for transactions – even transactions in person at the bank. This is helpful if you have a common name or more than one person in your family with the same name, i.e., Jr. or Sr. This is especially helpful if there are untrustworthy people in your parent’s life – or yours.

I’m not normally a vengeful person, but I will say this:  If there’s any justice in this universe, there’s a special place in hell for people who run scams on the elderly. I envision the devil systematically destroying the scammer by taking away every single thing the she cares about and leaving her helpless, alone, insecure and terrified… with debt collectors hounding her for all eternity.