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Wednesday, 06 September 2006 00:00

Scams targeting elderly a growing problem

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By Sarah Kucharski • Staff Writer

Assistant Attorney General David Kirkman hits the play button on a small stereo and turns up the volume. A recording of two voices fills the room at the Jackson County Department of Social Services Building. One voice is that of an elderly woman. The other, a younger male con artist.

“Get the paper work,” the con artist demands.

“No, I’m not going to do it,” the elderly woman replies.

That’s when the cursing begins. The individual words are just beeps, but there’s little left to the imagination as the con artist berates the woman, yelling at her to get the paperwork they talked about yesterday and that he needs her to complete so that he can finish his scam.

The recording is real. The conversation one of several the elderly woman and the con artist have had. The only difference is that this time local authorities had been contacted and were listening in on the call.

It’s not so much a lesson about a scam in particular, as it is a lesson in how scammers work. Each scam is tailored to the victim, the result of elaborate profiling that aims to find victims’ triggers.

In the first call, the con artist has learned that he can intimidate the elderly woman. It’s vastly different from a second call in which a younger woman sweet talks another elderly woman into becoming near friends. The female con artist has been repeatedly calling the elderly woman, but hasn’t gotten an answer. She breathlessly explains that she had started getting worried about the elderly woman and that she genuinely was hoping to get in touch with the elderly woman so that they could finish their transaction — a transaction which naturally promises great return. The elderly are susceptible to this type of approach as it is non-threatening and offers a false sense of companionship.

Yet another call demonstrates a tactic con artists use to make the victim feel as though he or she is in control of the situation. An older man just catching on that a scam might be in the works says that while he enters a lot of sweepstakes, he doesn’t remember entering the one the caller says he has won. The caller explains that he’s already given the man his badge number and the situation would be handled all the better if the man could just come to claim his prize in person.

Giving out badge numbers is one of the latest tricks of the trade, N.C. Assistant Attorney General David Kirkman told participants in a conference about elder abuse held Friday, Aug. 25, in Sylva. Badge numbers sound official, though they may be totally made up.

Few people ever go to the lengths to contact the agency the caller says he or she is from and check to see that the caller really is an agency employee — particularly when the caller identifies him or herself as being from the Internal Revenue Service, U.S. Customs, or with a national lottery.

Posing as official agents plays into several scams the Attorney General’s office has identified. In one scam based in Canada and Costa Rica, a caller claims a winner’s prize is in the customs warehouse in New York. The winner must wire $10,000 to $30,000 to a “bonded customs agent” to cover customs duties before the prize can be released. After receiving payment, the same con artists will call back claiming to be an IRS agent in a nearby city. The caller will contend that U.S. income taxes must be paid on the prize or they will have to send it back. Again they will ask that several thousand dollars be wired to cover the cost.

The scam is similar to one reported to the Attorney General’s office that claimed $130,000 from an 82-year-old, former executive in a major corporation, Kirkman said. The former executive was told that he had won an out-of-the-country lottery and wound up wiring money all over the world for FedEx shipping insurance and to phony IRS agents until the wiring services, suspecting what was happening, cut the former executive off from using their services. The former executive was looking for signs of legitimacy, rather than recognizing the signs of illegitimacy, Kirkman said.

The Attorney General’s office hears about someone losing $10,000 or more in various scams every two to three days, Kirkman said. Victims often become repeat targets. Once scammers learn that money is there to be taken, they engage in “reloading,” a practice of continuing a scam such as that secondary call from the IRS agent or an entirely new scam altogether.

The scam may seem obvious to some, which is exactly why con artists are choosing to target the elderly. The aging are often afflicted with declining cognitive abilities. Approximately 5 million Americans have Alzheimer’s disease. Ten percent of those ages 65 and over, and 50 percent of those ages 85 and over, have begun showing signs of the disease, Kirkman said.

As an added bonus to con artists, the older population most likely has saved for retirement and has financial liquidity. Consequently, con artists’ most favored victims are age 75 or over, who live alone, are financially independent, lonely and showing signs of cognitive decline.

Con artists use a variety of means to learn about their potential victims using an underground network to trade information. The more a con can learn about a victim, the better they can hone their pitch.

Cons may spend enough time talking to a victim as to learn what medications they’re on and when they take them, so as to call when victims are least alert. Or one sweepstakes entry form gives a general indication of a potential victim’s cognitive abilities based on their handwriting and ability to fill out the form, Kirkman said. One such form Kirkman displayed showed that the person filling it out had simply written in the number zero repeatedly. Such a form would fetch a high price on the con market, as it most likely indicated a victim prime for a scam.

Combating scams aimed at the elderly is a joint battle for those in elder care, law enforcement, and social services, Kirkman said.

“We have to think like the scammers, we have to network together,” he said.

Consequently, the 30th Judicial District is beginning to treat the victims of elder fraud as special victims, like children or sexual victims, said District Attorney Mike Bonfoey.

“They need more support than your normal, every day adult would,” Bonfoey said.

Such elder crimes are on the forefront of law enforcement discussion in part due to the continuing graying of America and growth of the aging population. Elder crimes carry a personal stigma in which the victim may feel responsible or ashamed of being victimized, much like victims of domestic abuse.

“As with child abuse and spousal abuse years ago, we can raise awareness of this issue,” said Sybil Mann, director of the 30th Judicial District Alliance Against Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence, who coordinated elder abuse conference along with Bonfoey.

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