Phone swindlers tap into seniors' fear, sense of duty

AARP increases counseling and outreach to help retirees guard against scams.

NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICEJune 15, 2014 

Betty Bell, who was the target of a scam claiming she missed jury duty and had to pay a fine, at the retirement home where she lives in Boise, Idaho.

Betty Bell, the target of a phone scammer, fits the mold of a typical victim, but she escaped any financial harm.

JOE JASZEWSKI — jjaszewski@idahostatesman.com

Before Betty Bell, 88, even got out of bed, the telephone jolted her awake at 7 a.m. The male voice on the line said that a police officer was coming to arrest her for shirking her civic duty.

"He told me he was from the courthouse and I had been called for jury duty, but I had not shown up," said Bell, a retired New Jersey Bell accounting and payroll clerk who moved to the Overland Court Senior Living residence in Boise three years ago.

Just as the caller got to the part about how much she needed to pay to avoid arrest, she passed the phone to a nurse's aide. The caller hung up.

Bell was luckier than those who have been tricked into sending money in response to such threats. The swindle takes advantage of older people's sense of civic duty and frightens some into complying, even though law enforcement officials say they never call people and ask for financial information.

"Seniors are targeted for a variety of scams because it's a low-risk crime that is often not reported," said Don Blandin, chief executive of the Investor Protection Trust, an investor education organization. "It's a great embarrassment, especially when people feel some cognitive loss and they don't want to be seen as vulnerable."

STAGGERING NUMBERS

The Federal Trade Commission, which compiles fraud complaints, estimated in its 2011 national fraud survey that some 25.6 million adults were victims that year. And some had been victims more than once, with a total of 37.8 million incidents.

Retirees are prime targets because they have retirement savings and equity in their homes. And many still use landlines, making them easier to find through lists that are sold commercially.

"You can buy a list, for example, that targets categories like 'women over 60, living alone,' " said Amy Nofziger, who directs the AARP Foundation's consumer fraud programs in Colorado, which counsels seniors who report being victimized by repeat scams such as foreign lottery windfalls.

Scammers exhort "winners" of sweepstakes and lotteries to first pay expenses or taxes to spring millions of dollars in payouts. Others promote discount medical supplies and investments, ranging from fake mortgages to time shares, according to the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection.

Last year, the commission logged 1.1 million fraud-related consumer complaints in its Consumer Sentinel Network database. The complainants, of whom 47 percent were 50 and older, reported $1.6 billion in losses, with a median payment of $400 per complaint. Scammers most often used the telephone to get in touch with consumers, accounting for 40 percent of all contacts, up from 30 percent just two years earlier.

"A lot of these frauds are old wine in new bottles," said Lois C. Greisman, the FTC's associate director for the marketing practices division.

"Technology has made it even easier, because the costs of the outbound telephone contacts are negligible, about 1 cent, and many come from offshore, which are harder to pursue."

Impostor fraud - where people pose as law officials, government employees or relatives - is escalating and ranks as the No. 4 fraud across the country, according to the commission's Consumer Sentinel data. It was the most prevalent type of fraud in Indiana, Montana and West Virginia last year, according to the FTC data.

"These types of scams are very persistent," said Brett DeLange, Idaho's deputy attorney general. "And they come in cycles because these are sophisticated crooks who know they can prey only so much in an area before people begin to catch on."

DOLLAR AMOUNTS

To keep abreast of the shifting types of fraud, the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging has set up its own telephone hotline. The committee has received about 1,500 calls since November, said Bryan F. Gulley, a committee spokesman. About two-thirds of callers have been scammed; the other calls are from concerned family, friends or neighbors.

"It's hard to put an exact dollar figure on the losses," Gulley said, "because we don't know how many scams there are. A lot of people don't realize they've been defrauded, or they don't report it because they are ashamed."

The committee plans to hold a hearing in the next few months on "the worst of the worst - the grandparents scheme," he said. The fraudsters, he said, search social media for personal information on people's relatives, then pose as the grandchild-in-trouble who insists that the parents not be called.

Even those involved in combating fraud can find themselves as victims. Sally B. Hurme, a fraud expert and lawyer at AARP, discovered recently that her husband, a federal retiree, sent thousands of dollars after getting a phone call, allegedly from their grown daughter in a Los Angeles jail.

"It was a bad connection and I have bad hearing," explained Art Hurme, "but the woman calling said she was my daughter, she was in trouble and not to call anyone else. She had answers for every question. It was a convincing story and very slick.

"So when her 'lawyer' called for $3,000, I went to Wal-Mart and bought six $500 Money Pak cards, and I came back home and read them the numbers."

COMMON THEME

As more scams siphon retirement money from seniors, the AARP began a Fraud Watch Network map in March, expanding the fraud awareness campaign it began in the fall. The network also has a national fraud hotline: 877-908-3360.

"We hear it every day - the person who 'won' the lottery but needs to send in $5,000, or the call that says 'just log me in' to fix a computer glitch, or the grandson calling from Mexico for bail money," said Jean Mathisen, director for an AARP fraud call center in Seattle. "They are taking money people have saved their whole lives."

Most money is not recovered, and scolding people afterward, the advocacy group has found, does little to stop such fraud. That is why the group's fraud fighter program offers free peer counseling. Last year, about 3,000 consumers received such counseling, according to the program. Not all of the consumers disclosed how much they lost, but reported losses were $15.6 million.

Idaho's DeLange said that when someone calls, "the first thing to do is to hang up."

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