Elder fraud cases on the rise


It may be a phone call from your "grandson," needing to be bailed out of jail; a Social Security administration "official" saying you need to verify your information to continue to receive benefits; or a Canadian "official" saying you need to pay taxes to receive your lottery winnings.

While the scams differ, the motives are the same -- trying to separate you from your cash. And the fraudsters are taking particular aim at older Americans.

Fraud and scam complaints filed by those 60 and older nearly doubled between 2010 and 2013, according to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).

Elder fraud cases on the rise

Those 60 and older accounted for 14 percent of the 459,000 complaints filed in 2010, according to the FTC's Consumer Sentinel Network Data Book. Just three years later, consumers in that age group filed 27 percent of the 459,000 complaints.

And that elder fraud comes with a steep price. A 2015 report by the financial services firm True Link found fraud against seniors totaled a staggering $9.85 billion a year, with the average loss per victim over five years reaching $13,225.

"The scammers are successful because they're very convincing. Sometimes they sweet talk their targets, other times they berate them," says Noelle Talley, spokeswoman for the North Carolina Department of Justice. "They use ploys that are hard to say no to -- claiming to be a grandchild in distress, for example."

If that's not enough, "they are often masters at exploiting age-related memory conditions," Talley says.

Terri Worman, associate state director with the AARP in Illinois, says, "There's a scam for almost anything you can think of."

Fraudsters use technology to make mail, email and websites look legitimate, and they'll tinker with caller ID so the phone number that comes up looks official.

One favorite tactic is doctoring caller ID so it seems the call is coming from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). The caller then claims you need to pay your taxes immediately by wire transfer or prepaid card, or you'll face arrest, deportation or other legal action. "People still very much believe you present yourself as who you say you are," Worman says.

On the one extreme, "Criminals sound as nice as you need them to be so you believe you're their friend," she says. On the other end of the spectrum they use fear and intimidation to try to get you to do their bidding.

Criminals sound as nice as you need them to be so you believe you're their friend.

-- Terri Worman
AARP Illinois

Fraudsters may target older Americans because of their household wealth, or because they have steady income from Social Security benefits, says Ramsey Alwin, vice president for economic security at the National Council on Aging.

The bad guys also may scare seniors into revealing personal information by saying they might lose their government benefits. They'll typically call and say they need you to update or verify your personal information or you'll lose your Social Security or Medicare benefits. "For a lot of people that's their lifeblood," Worman says.

If you give them any information they might use it to file fake Medicare claims in your name, commit identity theft or tap into your bank account.

Government programs such as Medicare and Social Security have your information at hand, so there's no reason to provide it again, she says. But if you're worried about your benefits, you should hang up, look up the phone number online or in the phone book and call the agency yourself. Never call any number the caller provides, as it's likely to be part of the scam.

Worman says some other common scams targeting seniors these days include:

Grandparents scam: You get a call from someone claiming to be your grandchild, who says he needs you to bail him out of jail. The fraudsters may have combed social media sites looking to see who your relatives are so they can name drop and sound legitimate. To protect yourself, Worman says you and your family members should pick a secret password. If you get a strange call from someone purporting to be a family member requesting money, ask them for the password. A scammer will probably hang up.

Lotto or sweepstakes scam: You'll get a call, often originating from Canada or Jamaica, congratulating you for hitting it big in the lottery. You'll get your winnings once you pay taxes and fees by wire transfer or using a prepaid card. If you don't have the cash, they may tell you to borrow it. They also may threaten you, Worman says. For example, they'll look up your address on Google maps, then say the car parked across the street from your house is part of their group and they're keeping you under watch.

Disaster scams: If a disaster such as an earthquake or hurricane strikes, you may get a call from someone purporting to be from your local chapter of the Red Cross, asking you to make a donation using your credit card, she says. That's a great way for the bad guys to get their hands on your card information. Instead, donate through the organization's secure website or send a check to the address you find online.

Once someone has fallen for a scam, their contact information is likely to be sold to other scammers, so they will be targeted again and again.

-- Noelle Talley
North Carolina Department of Justice

Tech support scams: You'll get a call from someone claiming to be from Microsoft tech support, saying they need to help you fix your computer. Instead they may put malware on your computer or may charge you a $49 fee for their "assistance," and then use your credit card to ring up fraudulent charges. "They play into what seems feasible," Worman says.

"Once someone has fallen for a scam, their contact information is likely to be sold to other scammers, so they will be targeted again and again," Talley says.

Or the same scammers will tap their victims repeatedly, and the scams could go on for years, says David Kirkman, special deputy attorney general in the consumer protection division of the North Carolina Attorney General's Office. In North Carolina, the average victim lost $10,000 in 2013, and "six figures is not unusual," Kirkman says.

Those are just the crimes that law enforcement officials are aware of. Often seniors don't report fraud, or even tell family members about it, because they feel embarrassed, or they fear losing their financial independence, Alwin says. "It shows their vulnerability"

The victims may also unwittingly wind up as middle man or "money mules" in these schemes, helping to transport and launder stolen money.

The victims may have had good careers, such as working as a pilot or professor, and the scammers will make them feel important by saying, "You're the only one who can help us," Kirkman says. These victims "want to be decision-makers again."

Victims also may be depressed, lonely or suffer from mild cognitive impairment. If the scammers say they've won the lottery, it "makes them feel good about themselves," he says.

Being a victim of fraud can mean far more than losing the money in your bank account. The True Link study found that of the seniors who experienced fraud, 2 percent lost their home or other major assets as a result; 7 percent skipped medical care and 4 percent reduced their nutritional intake for financial reasons.

"In some cases we are able to recover money back for victims, although once someone has wired or provided money via GreenDot [prepaid cards] to someone overseas, it's very difficult to get it back," Talley says.

See related: How to detect, prevent elder financial abuse

Published: May 5, 2015

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