As Robert Roosa slid deeper into dementia, scammers took him for everything he had and he nearly lost his Kettering home. By the time his daughter figured out what was going on, she said her 94-year-old dad had given at least $14,000 to sweepstakes scammers and lost thousands more to a trusted acquaintance.
Scammers running cons with catchy names such as the Sweepstakes Scam, Sweetheart Scam, Grandparent Scam, and Pigeon Drop are increasingly targeting the elderly, preying on them with lies and promises of financial security. The scammers pull heartstrings and make threats. They draw in lonely people with sweet talk and fake friendship. They pressure victims to hand over money quickly and secretly.
And they often let up only when there is no more money to take.
“The loss of resources can be absolutely devastating,” said Ramsey Alwin, vice president at the National Council on Aging, an elder advocacy group.
Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine said the money taken by scammers usually is lost forever, especially since many of the scams originate overseas.
“What happens is these people are gone, the money’s gone and you really have a very difficult time ever catching them,” DeWine said.
Fraud complaints filed by people age 60 and older increased by 59 percent between 2011 and 2014, according to the Federal Trade Commission’s Consumer Sentinal Network.
“We definitely think this is a very big and growing problem,” said Naomi Karp, senior policy analyst at the U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
Scammers target the elderly because they may have money or assets and can be easier to con. An elderly person may be more vulnerable due to dementia or other health issues; they might be lonely and get sucked in by scammers pretending to care about them; or they feel financially insecure and fall for promises of a windfall.
Older people also tend to be more trusting and polite, less likely to simply hang up on a scammer, experts say.
“This is a generation who believes their word is their bond, a handshake seals a deal, and ‘they wouldn’t say it if it wasn’t true,’ ” said Eva Velasquez, president and chief executive of the Identity Theft Resource Center, a nonprofit that helps identity theft victims.
Elderly people also can be easier targets for charity scams, so much so that at this time of year AARP begins its annual push warning its members to be skeptical of claims that money they give will help orphans or feed the needy.
Scammers will use a name that sounds close to that of a legitimate charity or “they’ll say, ‘we’re the firefighters’ when they’re not the firefighters at all,” said Kathy Keller, AARP’s associate state director in Ohio.
“It’s unconscionable,” said Keller. “How do they live with themselves?”
And it isn’t always a stranger who financially exploits senior citizens, said John North, president and chief executive of the Better Business Bureau Dayton/Montgomery County.
“Oftentimes it is friends or neighbors that are scamming the elderly,” he said.
The FTC said 171,230 fraud complaints were filed by consumers age 60 or older in 2014 and the estimated annual loss by victims of elder financial abuse was $2.9 billion, according to a 2011 Met Life Mature Market Institute study.
In Ohio, about 15 percent of the 54,419 consumer complaints filed with DeWine’s office in 2013 and 2014 were from people who said they were 65 or older. Misrepresentation was the No. 1 type of consumer complaint.
But experts and law enforcement officials believe the number of elderly victims and their annual losses are far higher because of reluctance on the part of senior citizens to report it when they’ve been conned out of money.
Victims may be embarrassed and fear that falling for a scam will be seen as a sign that they are slipping.
“This is so under-reported because they have a fear of the loss of their own independence,” North said. “If a family member finds out then (victims) are afraid that they’re going to take away some of their control and that independence.”
A ‘hot lead’
The secrecy plays right into the hands of con artists, who warn the victim to tell no one, opening that person to even more scamming.
“Oftentimes when a victim falls for one scam or a couple of scams they get on this list. It’s called the ‘Sucker List’ and they start trying to scam you more,” North said. “Unfortunately, when a scam artist gets a hold of someone that falls for their scam, oftentimes they will come back and they will need more. And so they know this is a ‘hot lead’ right there.”
Robert Roosa’s daughter, Barbara Ballard, 75, said her father apparently fell for multiple scams, but the one that did the most damage was a sweepstakes scam apparently originating in Jamaica.
The Ohio Attorney General took 201 consumer complaints in 2013 and 2014 about the Jamaica callers, which is a sweepstakes or lottery scam that often targets the elderly with claims that they have won a large sum of money but must pay fees or taxes in advance before they get the money.
Ballard lived out of state and had been unsuccessful in persuading her father to come live with her or to go into assisted living even as his Alzheimer’s disease worsened. She returned to Kettering to care for him after he had a fall in 2012, and discovered he had borrowed $9,000 against the equity of the house he’d paid off in 1957. He did it to come up with more money for the scammers.
Roosa died in 2014.
Phone calls remain the most common way scam victims are contacted. That’s how con artists typically contact victims in the Grandparent Scam. The scammer pretends to be the victim’s grandchild or nephew who has had an accident or been arrested and needs money sent immediately.
“I will guarantee you tonight somewhere in Ohio at least one person will fall for this scam,” said DeWine.
“What they count on is you making a rash judgment, a judgment you normally would not make, but you’re panicked, you’re scared and you do it,” he said.
Scammers also use email or knock on the victim’s door.
DeWine said elderly people often are targeted in home improvement scams, such as a contractor claiming to have “left-over” asphalt and offering a “deal” to resurface a driveway but then either not doing the work or doing a shoddy job.
Jonathan Blanton, chief of DeWine’s consumer protection section, said the IRS Scam is the most common, followed by the Sweepstakes Scam. He said the advent of prepaid debit cards has made it easier for criminals to anonymously get money from victims.
“They just panic. They transfer that money and that money is gone,” DeWine said.
Last week Kettering police warned residents to ignore a scammer identifying himself as David Gray and claiming to be calling about an “enforcement action executed by the United States Treasury” and warning people that if they didn’t call back they risked an appearance before “a magistrate judge or a grand jury for a federal criminal offense.”
Pat Young of Trotwood described a phone call she received earlier this year that was a textbook example of the IRS Scam.
“There was a guy that called me. He was a foreigner. He said he was an agent with the IRS. He said, ‘You’re in trouble,’ ” Young said.
He claimed she had underpaid her taxes by $3,000 and said, “If I didn’t pay them I was going to be arrested for fraud.”
Young, 67, had learned her identity was stolen about two years ago when fraudsters applied for an income tax refund in her name and later applied for and maxed out a credit card. So when she got the call from the IRS scammer she knew better than to fall for it.
“He said, ‘You don’t pay us and you see what happens. The police will be there in 20 minutes,’ ” recalled Young. “I said, “Let them come.”
DeWine’s office will work with local prosecutors or authorities in other states and the federal government to prosecute scammers when they can be found.
While it is rare for scammers to be caught, Blanton said it is crucial that victims report scams as quickly as possible to police and the attorney general.
“The one thing we would like to see victims do is hopefully never fall for this, but regardless, report it,” Blanton said. “One call might be what breaks through a huge ring.”
DeWine’s office helped bring down the con artist in a Sweetheart Scam that led to the Nov. 19 sentencing of a man who defrauded an Ohio woman out of hundreds of thousands of dollars, said Blanton.
Krist Koranteng, 34, of Maryland and others searched online dating websites to meet men and women, begin romantic relationships and scam them out of nearly $1.8 million, according to a news release from the U.S. Attorney’s office in Maryland. Koranteng was convicted in federal court there on three counts, sentenced to three years in prison and ordered to pay full restitution.
Sweetheart scammers convince their victims to give them money for plane tickets, a sick or needy relative, to make investments, pay medical bills and to cover other costs. Since 2013 DeWine’s offfice has received about 75 Sweetheart Scam complaints, with the average victim losing more than $23,000.
Velasquez said it is sometimes hard to convince older victims that the person they met online is lying.
“You don’t (actually) know that you are talking to a 70- or 75-year-old gentleman in Florida who is a retired businessman. They say, ‘Yes I do. He sent me a picture,’ ” said Velasquez. “They feel like they are in a romantic relationship even though they have never met them.”
She and several other experts and officials interviewed for this story said they knew personally of a situation where an elderly person was being scammed or where a person’s loved ones struggled to convince the victim to stop handing over money to con artists.
“What we hear from people is that everyone is finding this in their family,” said Cindy Hounsell, president of the Women’s Institute for a Secure Retirement.
Some elderly victims are in various stages of Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia, but Velasquez says many victims appear to be fine cognitively and the scam comes as a shock to their families when it happens to a relative who has been making good decisions his or her whole life.
“It’s assumed that having been duped by one of these very savvy scamsters might be a sign of declining or diminishing capacity and capability, when in reality it’s a very savvy industry,” Alwin said.
“Scammers are thinking daily, hourly about new tricks and messaging that could be used to extract resources from older adults.”
Lisa Harry was living with her mother, Carol Harry — then 77 — when multiple scammers convinced the elder Harry that she had won a $2.2 million sweepstakes and a car. A retired nurse, Carol Harry, turned over $2,284 to the scammers in five transactions involving pre-paid debit cards, starting in January 2013, according to a complaint filed with DeWine’s office.
Lisa Harry found out only through sheer luck: the scammer happened to call while she was home from work.
“It just took me a while to convince her that she wasn’t going to get that money back and she wasn’t going to get the winnings either,” Harry said. “It’s very frustrating. When she was younger she never would have fallen for anything like this.”
Experts acknowledge that it is very difficult to force an older person to stop giving money to a scammer. They said reducing social isolation and keeping communication open reduces the power of a scammer. Valesquez said older people tend to have faith in “experts” so getting the police, a banker, doctor, attorney or others to talk to the person who is being victimized might help.
All of those interviewed said their groups or offices provide a variety of tip sheets, presentations, training or other resources. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is developing training protocols to help bank personnel intervene when they suspect a person is being scammed.
“I think you’re going to start to see more and more ways for family members, caregivers, people surrounding that older adult to be playing a protective role without taking away all the authority of the older person,” Karp said.
A variety of companies now offer services that monitor a person’s spending or give family members the ability to do so, and some banks allow a third party to monitor bank accounts with the permission of the account holder, but not make any transactions.
In cases where an elderly person is unable to take care of financial affairs, power of attorney or guardianship might be necessary.
Carolyn Bradfield said her sister ultimately took control of the checkbook after their mother, Bertha Murphy of Middletown, was scammed out of about $34,000 about 10 years ago.
“When you’re 90 years old that’s a lot of money to lose,” said Bradfield, 77, of Clearcreek Twp.
The scammer claimed he would put sweepstakes winnings into Bertha’s bank account if she handed over her checking account information. Once she did, that account information was passed around to multiple scammers across the country and Ireland, who drained her checking and savings of $21,000 over several months.
Murphy, who died at age 99 in 2014, also borrowed $13,000 on her credit card to pay fees the scammers told her needed to be paid before she would get her sweepstakes winnings, which Murphy hoped to share with her children and grandchildren.
Through her own detective work and phone calls, Bradfield was able to recover about $16,000 from the banks that had canceled the scammers’ checks. But the rest of the money was gone.
“I think what affected mom the most was she felt like she lost her dignity,” said Bradfield. “She lost control, especially when my sister took the checkbook. She wanted to be independent.”
“It just broke our hearts because she was trying to do good for the family. And she was taken advantage of.”
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