Financial Scammers Increasingly Target Elderly Americans

 According to an article in The Wall Street Journal on December 23, 2013, one in every five Americans 65 or older has been abused financially.

This article caught my attention because my father is 87 years old and was recently contacted by a scammer. When he answered his phone they said “Hi Grandpa.” Thinking it was his grandson, he said “Hi Ryan.” The person on the line said, “I need your help! I’m in Mexico on vacation and I’ve been arrested.”  He said, “I need your credit card to pay a $1000 fine so I can be released.” My father said “No, you better call your mom about that.” When he said “no”, the scammer hung up.

Minnesota State Rep. Joe Atkins spoke at a senior-citizen community last year and asked how many had recently been targeted by scammers.

“Every single hand in the room went up, 75 for 75,” Rep. Atkins says. “Every single resident had gotten that same call.”

Four told him they had sent money and were ashamed.

The grandparent scam, which Rep. Atkins found at the seniors’ facility, features a scammer pretending to be a grandchild on the phone.

“Is that you, Billy?” the grandparent responds.

“Yes!” says the scammer. “It’s Billy. I’ve been kidnapped in Mexico. Wire $2,000 or they will hurt me! Don’t tell my parents.”

A surprising number of people send money.

The fleecing of older Americans is becoming an epidemic. People 60 years and older made up 26% of all fraud complaints tracked by the Federal Trade Commission in 2012, the highest of any age group. In 2008, the level was just 10%, the lowest of any adult age group.

Investigators estimate that only 10% of such frauds are reported and most reported cases aren’t even investigated. Financial scams are expensive for law enforcement to pursue and there can be little concrete evidence.

Some officials have given up individual investigations and are trying to build databases of criminal networks, or simply educate seniors. It is an uphill battle for which governments have little money.

Scammers sometimes phone a dozen times a day, forging personal relationships with lonely victims.

There are other types of scams targeting the elderly. For example, with senior citizens using dating websites, romance scams have blossomed. Online sweethearts take money to finance supposed visits or emergencies.

Work-at-home frauds target people short of retirement money. Scammers persuade people to pay for expensive but ineffective online training, website creation and phony investments.

“It is a big and growing problem,” says Robert Roush, who runs the Geriatric Education Center at Baylor College of Medicine.

The ability to recognize fraud can fade with aging, even among people without dementia, research shows. As the number of seniors increases, they also are becoming more-enticing targets. Cheap Internet phoning, emailing and rapid fund-transfer technology make it easy to contact—and swindle—potential targets. People strapped after the financial crisis can be more apt to fall for get-rich-quick schemes. They can lose thousands of dollars or more before families notice.


Lisa Hansen, MSW

Elder Care Coordinator

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