Elder Fraud: Too Close To Home

Ten years ago my grandmother was a victim of elder fraud. In what I now know was a classic scam, a scammer contacted her by phone, claiming to be a grandchild in trouble. (It’s also common for the scammer to pose as someone representing a grandchild in trouble, such as a lawyer or law enforcement agent.) In my grandmother’s case the scammer said he was in jail and needed bail money to get out, convinced her to buy cash cards at a grocery store on his behalf, and intimidated her into staying silent.

At first glance it appears that there were a number of people who could have raised the red flag. My grandmother could have recognized that the voice on the phone was not familiar, the grocery store clerk could have noticed her odd behavior, or our family could have checked in more frequently, as the scam took days to complete. But on closer inspection none of these avenues were likely to stop the scam. Like many elderly people, my grandmother does not hear particularly well, and does not always recognize familiar voices on the phone. Employees at a grocery store are generally not empowered to intervene if they notice suspicious but legal purchases. And at the time of the scam my grandmother lived alone, making the frequent family contact needed for prevention difficult.

While we have since taken steps to prevent such fraud going forward, they were not quick or easy. My grandmother’s finances are now closely monitored by a family member, and she has moved closer to family, making frequent check-ins possible. While these were needed changes, perhaps most important is that the whole family is now aware of these dangers and will be ready to take action if anyone notices something amiss.

My grandmother’s experience is distressingly common. In 2022, adults over the age 60 reported 88,262 complaints to the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center, with a total loss of $3.1 billion. This represents an 84% increase in losses as compared to losses reported in 2021. The average loss per victim was more than $35,000, and more than 5,000 victims lost over $100,000. California has the highest number of elderly victims of fraud, and the collective amount of reported losses incurred in California was $624,509,520 in 2022.[1]

The Department of Justice’s Office for Victims of Crime list the following common scams[2]:

  • Grandparent scams such as the one described above.
  • Romance scams where the scammer takes advantage of people looking for romantic partners or companionship through dating websites or social media.
  • Government investigation scams where the scammer claims to be a government employee and threatens to arrest or prosecute victims unless they agree to provide funds or other payments.
  • Sweepstakes/lottery/charity scams where the scammer claims to work for a charitable organization and tells the victims they won a lottery or sweepstakes, which they can collect after paying “fees/taxes”.
  • Tech support scams where the scammer acts as a technology support representative and offers to fix non-existent computer issues. The scammer gains remote access to a victim’s computer or phone and their personal information.
  • Phishing scams where the scammer uses emails and websites that claim to be associated with financial companies and manipulates victims to disclose personal and financial data. 
  • Email extortion scams where the scammer shows evidence that they have one of the victim’s online passwords and claims to have put malware on the victim’s computer that lets them capture keystrokes, watch the webcam, and track online history that may be private, such as visits to adult websites. They threaten to share this information with the victim’s contacts unless the victim pays hush money in the form of Bitcoin.
  • Cryptocurrency scams where the scammer sends a message about a virtual currency investment opportunity and claims that the virtual currency investment involves no risk and sure profits.
  • Fake check/overpayment scams where the scammer sends a bad check to pay for an item, a sweepstakes award, lottery winnings, a grant, or a scholarship and then asks that some of the money be returned for fees to claim the award or overpayment.

An increased focus on education and assistance can thwart scam attempts. One, let’s do our best to educate our elders about the pervasiveness of scammers and the types of scams they might come across. Two, let’s be sensitive to our elders who may be filling new financial shoes and walk them through how to handle everything. Three, if they are unable to take charge of their finances, agree on a trusted person to assist them whenever needed. This could be as casual as helping make a phone call to a credit card company or as involved as creating a joint account with the trusted person’s name on it. If our elders don’t feel as alone and are willing to ask for help when uncertainty arises, then as families we can better fight back against the exploitation of some of the more vulnerable members of the population.

For prevention resources or if you or someone you know has been a victim of elder fraud, visit the Office for Victims of Crime website or call the National Elder Fraud hotline at 833-FRAUD-11.

 

[1] https://www.fbi.gov/contact-us/field-offices/losangeles/news/fbi-los-angeles-raises-public-awareness-about-elder-fraud-announces-arrests-made-this-week-of-men-who-allegedly-targeted-elderly-victims-in-timeshare-scheme

[2] https://ovc.ojp.gov/program/stop-elder-fraud/common-scams-and-warning-signs