Beware of scams that target the elderly

A sad reality with a rapidly aging population, spurred by the Baby Boom generation, is the rise in instances of elder abuse and exploitation.

Con artists come in many forms, and perhaps the most nefarious are those who present themselves as caring for the best interest of the most vulnerable.

According to a Nov. 3 article published by Consumer Reports, financial elder abuse—broadly defined as the illegal or improper use of the funds, property, or assets of people 60 and older by family, friends, neighbors, and strangers—is rising fast.

The Federal Trade Commission says that fraud complaints to its offices by individuals 60 and older rose at least 47 percent between 2012 and 2014. Seniors are the predominant victims of impostor schemes, in which criminals pose as government officials or other authority figures and claim that money is owed. They also are hit hard by gambits involving prizes, sweepstakes, and gifts.

Older people’s vulnerabilities—including isolation, loneliness, generally trusting natures, relative wealth, and in some cases declining mental capabilities—make them ideal quarry for con artists. Even those whose cognition is intact can be swayed if they’re stressed or depressed, or recently have lost a loved one.

The amount lost to swindlers, whether they are strangers or even relatives, is huge, with estimates ranging from almost $3 billion to more than $30 billion annually, Consumer Reports states. And as baby boomers age, the pool of potential victims will expand, with assets ripe for the pickpocketing.

There are several scams that seem to be popular among con artists that exploit the vulnerabilities of older Americans, but they seem to have a common denominator: The use of pre-paid debit cards – e.g., Green Dot cards — to make payments.

For instance, a scam that reared up in the past year or so is one commonly known as the jury duty scam, but it, too, can take a variety of forms.

Generally, the victim receives a phone call from someone who identifies himself as a ranking officer with a local police or sheriff’s office. This person then tells the victim that he or she has missed jury duty and a warrant has been issued for their arrest. In order to avoid jail time, the victim must pay a sizeable fine immediately. The only way to get that money to them is to go to the nearest store and purchase Green Dot cards and then call back the “Lieutenant” or “Captain” with the codes on the back of the cards.

The scammers are sophisticated enough to use the names of the victims’ local law enforcement agencies to give the con a ring of truth.

Another equally vicious con is one that targets the elderly in particular. In this con, the criminal, posing as a law enforcement officer or a bondsman, calls the victim, says their grandchild has gotten in trouble while he or she was out of town and needs to be bailed out. Often, the scammer will coerce the victim into not telling anyone – particularly their grandchild’s parents – banking on the idea that there may be some family friction and the grandparent victim will want to protect his or her grandchild.

The scammers are often savvy enough to get their victim to reveal the name of their grandchild without realizing it, thereby giving the criminal more leverage to sound legitimate.

Again, the only recourse to save their grandchild from incarceration – or worse – is for the grandparent to transfer money via a prepaid debit card to the scammer.

Crimes against the elderly are not limited to just random phone calls that hit upon a willing target.
Scams involving people the victim knows – and trusts – are sadly all too common.

With a highly mobile society, it is not uncommon for adult children to live in a different city than their aging parents. Or, in other cases, many older people need 24-hour care to tend to their needs. But the temptation for theft is great for many of these caregivers, who not only are responsible for the daily care of the senior citizen, but who also have access to their bank accounts.

A complex case was recently uncovered in metro Atlanta where an employee and the owner of a personal care home have been accused of taking money from patients’ accounts for their personal use, although it does not appear they were working in collusion. In fact, they both accused each other of doing the same thing.

The allegations are that the owner of the personal care home cancelled debit cards to be used for Social Security income and transferred the money into other accounts.

The employee is likewise accused of opening bank accounts naming himself as payee for some of the clients and naming himself as the sole signer on the accounts where the clients’ Social Security benefits were deposited.

This case also took another turn when the owner of the care home was arrested on allegations that she was illegally operating a personal care home from her house in a metro Atlanta subdivision. Investigators in that case soon discovered that she had been moving 12 people – ranging in age from mid-30s to 60s, most with mental disabilities – from hotel to hotel in the days prior to her arrest after she was cited by her local county her for operating a personal care home in a subdivision. The woman allegedly left the victims without food and water.

Situations such as this serve as strong reminders to be very careful when selecting a caregiver and to thoroughly vet providers and retirement homes. In any event, it is advised to never give any caregiver access to financial records or accounts. All bank account statements should be sent to a trusted family member at a different address.

Source: The Rockdale Citizen, Consumer Reports, “Lies, Secrets and Scams: How to Prevent Elder Abuse”