Editor's note: This is the second in a three-part series on senior scams.
Some people have a cunning prowess to make a profit through creative measures.
The sad truth is that some of these people use their abilities to take advantage of others — to exploit them.
And while these perpetrators can target anyone, among those most vulnerable are older adults.
According to the National Adult Protective Services Association, the rate of financial exploitation is extremely high, with 1 in 20 older adults indicating some form of perceived financial mistreatment occurring in the recent past.
“What we see in general is that while in many cases there is exploitation by someone that an individual knows, there are also many cases where someone is contacted over the phone, receives a letter, or is contacted online, and it’s a scam,” said Kate Hanson, public information officer in the state attorney general’s office.
“Unfortunately we’ve seen people lose in some cases a large amount of money,” she said.
Through the Ohio attorney general’s Elder Justice Initiative, which Attorney General Mike DeWine launched in 2014, the office provides support, education, and outreach services to combat elder financial exploitation and abuse.
The attorney general's Elder Justice Initiative staff members work with law enforcement, prosecutors, Adult Protective Services and communities to:
- Identify, investigate and prosecute elder abuse cases
- Improve services to victims
- Raise awareness of the warning signs of abuse
- Build local capacity to protect older adults
Scammers use a variety of tactics when trying to convince people to send money or give personal information.
Among those which specifically target older adults is what’s known as the “grandparent scam.” This occurs when con artists pose as grandchildren and call with a false story, explaining that they are in trouble in another city or country and need to be sent money via wire-transfer.
Sometimes scammers may research their victims online and use social media as a tool to obtain personal information about their subjects, such as the names of their relatives.
“What scammers will do is they’ll look at that information and then specifically put that into the scam,” said Melissa Smith, director of consumer education and outreach in the Ohio attorney general's office.
In the case of the grandparent scam, the perpetrator may call saying, “Hey, it’s (grandson or granddaughter’s name),” in order to make their phone call seem legitimate. They also may say something like, “Don’t tell mom and dad.”
“So the ploy then is to have this sense of urgency,” Smith said. “They’ll say something like, ‘I’m going to be in jail here in Mexico — can you send money to bail me out or get me an attorney?’”
Another common scam is known as the IRS scam in which a person calls pretending to represent the IRS, claiming that the individual owes back taxes.
“So the goal of that may be one of two things — payment of those back taxes, which is a scam, or it may just be to get your personal information,” Smith said.
Scammers may go so far as to manipulate the caller ID to make it appear as though the call is coming from an agency like the IRS — this is called spoofing.
“We see that being used a lot by scammers as a fairly effective tool to actually get people to pick up the phone,” Smith said.
Regardless of what form the scam takes, there are a few reg flags to be on the lookout for. Below are some ways noted by the attorney general’s office that can help you avoid falling for their schemes.
- Be skeptical when someone requests immediate payment via wire-transfer, pre-paid money card or gift card
- Look into businesses through the attorney general’s office and Better Business Bureau
- Beware of strangers who seek new, quick, personal connections with your or a loved one
- Research charities through the attorney general’s office
- Keep your personal information private and shred documents containing such information
- Send money via wire-transfer, prepaid money card or gift card to a stranger
- Give personal information to someone who has contacted you unexpectedly
- Carry unnecessary personal information, such as your Social Security card or Medicare card, in your wallet or purse
- Pay to win a prize or sweepstakes
- Allow someone “remote access” to your computer
- Pay the full amount upfront before any work has been done
Recouping your losses after being scammed presents a challenge, and may be impossible depending on how the money is transferred.
“That’s really why scammers like wire-transfers, prepaid money cards and gift cards because there’s really no way to recoup that — when the money’s gone, it’s gone. It’s hard to trace, it’s hard to get back. And a lot of times, you don’t know if the money’s gone overseas,” Smith said.
Victims can try to file a lawsuit, but as Smith pointed out, “A lot of times, you don’t know who you’re filing the lawsuit against because you don’t know who took your money.”
If criminal activity is suspected or if money has been lost, contact the police, Smith advised.
“And people can always feel free to contact our office because it’s helpful to us to understand the scams that are happening,” she added. “What we do as educators is go through our reports every week of what’s been reported to us and we look for new trends and scams.
“Whether they’ve lost money or not, it’s important for our office to know so that we can understand what we should be educating people on because if we don’t know it’s a problem, then we can’t use that as an education tool.”
To help prevent fraud, the attorney general’s office presents several “senior scams” workshops at locations across the state. Visit www.OhioAttorneyGeneral.gov for more information.
A word of advice to caregivers
Concerned a loved one may fall victim to a scam? Have that conversation with them and share related tips on how to avoid being scammed.
“And just stay involved (in his or her life),” Smith added. That way the caregiver is more likely to know if something fishy is going on.