by Nancy Baldwin
Each year, five million seniors become victims of financial fraud and exploitation resulting in the loss of over $36 billion. Profoundly destructive, elder scams decimate bank accounts, leaving older adults devoid of means to support themselves or leave an inheritance to family members.
“They could lose hundreds of thousands of dollars. Some lose everything,” says Julie Krawczyk, director, Elder Financial Safety Center at The Senior Source.
Seniors ages 60 to 85 are the most likely targets of scams and financial abuse. Generally wealthier than other demographics, older Americans also tend to be more trusting than their younger counterparts.
“Seventy and 80-year-olds made better financial choices throughout their lives. They have good credit and a good nest egg. They grew up in a different time. You got to know people and trust people in your community,” says Brett Leatherman, supervisory special agent, Cyber Division Outreach, Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).
Residents of North Texas are not immune to this crime. During 2017, $1.067 million was lost to elder victims in Collin County. Reported losses suffered in McKinney alone totaled $626,000. Statistics were recorded by the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) and focused on adults over the age of 60. In addition, many scams are not reported.
“Unreported scams are estimated at seven times the number that are reported,” says Steve Goodman, investigator, Criminal Investigation Division, Collin County Sheriff’s Office.
The key to avoiding victimization is to recognize a deception when it occurs. Here are the top six scams as noted by the FBI and Collin County Sheriff’s Office.
Telemarketers, phishers and con artists make thousands of calls a day to unsuspecting seniors. Their stories sound real, and the caller I.D. looks authentic.
“A lot of these suspects are calling from another country. They use voice-over-internet phone lines [VoIP]. They’re not traceable. Everything they say is a lie,” Goodman says.
These VoIP service providers give customers phone numbers in any area code, regardless of their actual geographical location, allowing scammers to pose as a legitimate business or government agency.
Many times these scammers pretend to be representatives from the IRS, law enforcement, Social Security Administration or Medicare.
“A person will call on the phone and say, ‘This is Detective Greenwood with the Collin County Sheriff’s Office. We have an arrest warrant for you for missing jury duty.’ They tell you to pay a fine. Don’t fall for it. No government agency is ever going to call somebody and ask for money,” says Goodman.
Another form of telephone scam, the grandparent con targets the emotions of susceptible seniors. A criminal will call and pretend to be a person’s grandchild.
“They’ll call at 3 a.m. They’ll say they are in jail in another country. They need money. It fosters fear,” Krawczyk says.
Perpetrators gather information online through social media. They troll Facebook and identify grandparents through a grandchild’s posts. If a child’s name isn’t readily available, they trick an older adult into revealing it.
“A female will call and say, ‘Hello, hello. Do you know who this is?’ Then when the elderly person says, ‘Yes, this is______,’ the scammer uses that name,” Goodman says.
Faking distress, the “grandchild” asks that money be sent using gift cards or an RIA International wire transfer. Before sending money, an older adult should call the grandchild at the phone number they know, and verify she is safe.
Medicare and Healthcare Fraud
Medicare and healthcare abuse appears in several forms. Medicare’s new identification cards are in the mail. Carrying new I.D numbers, they are meant to discourage identity theft. However, scammers have found a way to make money from unsuspecting seniors.
Posing as a Medicare representative, a con artist will call and ask for payment in exchange for the new free card. Also, the scammer may require confirmation of Medicare personal information. The con man then uses the elder’s insurance to visit a doctor, obtain prescriptions or even file a false claim.
“Medicare is completely different from other scams. A social security card or Medicare card is like gold or cash to a scammer,” says Krawczyk.
With a senior’s personal information, the sky’s the limit for fraudsters seeking to make money or buy drugs.
“We see elderly people who get medical statements for procedures that were never done, or they get prescriptions they never ordered. They should look over their billing statements and get in touch with the provider if they see something unusual,” Leatherman says.
Tech Support Scam
Older citizens less savvy about the internet are targets for a tech support scam. This con takes two forms. In the first ruse, fake computer security engineers make cold calls to convince people their computers are at risk for a security threat.
They offer a free security check to convince the senior to give them remote access to their computer for an imaginary fix. Of course, they’ll need passwords and identification.
“Passwords are easily stolen. Once they get into your computer and email, they can get into all your accounts and social media,” says Leatherman.
In the second hoax, fake pop-up windows warn older adults their computer has been infected with a virus. They are instructed to download a fake anti-virus program or allow a tech support person to gain access to the computer. Occasionally, the alert arrives as an email from a supposedly legitimate software company. It instructs seniors to update personal information that the scammers steal.
Rather than allowing access to their computer, older adults should call directly a local tech support company to ask for help.
The fastest growing con in America, romance scams are insidious. According to the FBI, Texas is one of the top six states in the nation with the highest number of victims. Financial losses associated with Dallas-area victims totaled more than $16 million from 2016 to 2018.
This deception occurs when single, older adults look for partners on dating websites, apps or social media. Fraudsters target emotionally vulnerable victims online, often pretending to be in the military or construction industry overseas.
Perpetrators use information in a victim’s online profile to build a relationship over time, eventually asking for money.
“There are dating websites geared to senior citizens. Criminals get to know the elderly. Then they say they need money to travel,” Leatherman says.
Scammers begin by asking for small amounts of money, later increasing the amount due to an emergency or unexpected issue. Their stories are accompanied by a promise of repayment but with continued excuses about a delay. Seniors should never send money to anyone they haven’t met in person.
Financial Abuse and Exploitation
Financial exploitation, including stealing money or taking over assets without permission, is most often committed by a family member, caregiver or other trusted person. In fact, according to research funded by the U.S. Justice Department, one in 20 older adults report being financially abused by a family member in the prior year.
The National Center on Elder Abuse estimates that such abuse costs older adults approximately $2.9 billion annually. Especially vulnerable are seniors with dementia or mental incapacity that diminishes their ability to make sound financial decisions. Often guardians attain power of attorney over an elder’s financial assets and use it to their advantage.
“Ninety percent of scams prosecuted in Dallas County are family members. Children believe they are entitled to a parent’s money, so they have documents drawn up. Other times, children take Social Security checks,” says Krawczyk.
Krawczyk recommends financial abuse be reported to the Elder Financial Safety Center.
While scams against older Americans take many forms, the result is the same—money is lost and rarely recovered.
“Once the money is gone, you’re probably not going to get it back. Remember, anytime anyone asks you for money, it’s a scam,” says Goodman.
How to Avoid Being Scammed
What to Do When a Scam Occurs