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Fleecing the vulnerable

The financial scamming of America’s elderly has become a big business with seniors losing billions of dollars


Illustration by Stephanie Dalton Cowan

Fleecing the vulnerable

Sam Speed says he once taught mathematics at the University of Memphis. Standing outside the Bluff City’s McWherter Senior Center, white hair combed smooth, he still looks the part of a disciplined academic. Sensible shoes. Wire-rimmed glasses. Shirt pocket gaping under the weight of a clip-on pen. At 84, Speed is thin and wiry, too, leaving little doubt he can manage his blocks-away walk home, even with a nagging ache in his left foot. But managing the problem of professional scammers who want to clear out his bank accounts? Well, that could be more difficult.

Like the nearly 1 in 5 older Americans who fall victim to financial exploitation each year, according to an AARP report, Speed is likely to reach his driveway and find his mailbox filled with phony prize-winning notices. He’ll need to thumb through bills for magazine subscriptions he never requested and a few envelopes with counterfeit cashier’s checks, too.

Then, as if the paper onslaught isn’t enough, he’ll probably field a barrage of phone calls from imposters who sound like the IRS, tech companies, even a grandson needing bail money to get out of jail. Unlike many of his peers, though, Speed says he knows when to hang up. He also has a methodical plan for handling telemarketers, thanks to his number-crunching bent. “I never pick up until it’s rung at least seven times,” he stresses.

That’s good, because elder fraud is a growing national problem, with victims over the age of 60 reporting to the FBI last year losses of $1.7 billion. That’s a sizable increase since 2020—74 percent—and those figures don’t include the losses incurred by victims too ashamed or too scared to call the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3). In fact, a True Link Financial study describes the FBI’s numbers as a “dramatic underestimate.” That firm believes criminals annually bilk U.S. seniors of more than $36 billion—the gross domestic products of Brunei, Bahamas, and Bermuda combined.

In the book of Leviticus, honoring the aged is paired with having a right fear of God. That’s why swindling tailored to this vulnerable population—the kind that can drain a life savings quicker than Grandpa can call out a routing number—is so scandalous. And such a threat.

HOUSTON—HOT, HUMID, AND HAZY this time of year—is home to the Texas Medical Center, the largest medical complex in the world. As a professor of geriatrics, Robert Roush has coveted office space in one of its many buildings, but at 80, he often prefers to “Zoom” lectures from his home in nearby Montgomery. There, he sits in front of paneled walls at a curved wooden desk, the kind that looks just right for the antique microscope holding down its left corner.

“Students sometimes ask me about it,” Roush says, explaining the piece came from his employer, the Baylor College School of Medicine, when it moved from Dallas to Houston in 1943. The microscope still works, and that’s fitting since Roush’s interest in the old extends beyond medical equipment to people. He’s spent the last 13 years training healthcare professionals to screen older patients for a specific risk: financial exploitation.

Roush’s grant-backed initiative, known as the Elder Investment Fraud and Financial Exploitation (EIFFE) Prevention Program, has a direct tie to a scamming operation that had by 2006 emptied the bank accounts of at least one elderly California couple. Nothing new about that scenario except this—the couple’s son was Christopher Cox, then-head of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. Roush remembers feeling surprised when he read Cox’s account in a national bulletin: “I realized if that could happen to the parents of the chair of the Securities and Exchange Commission, it can happen to anybody.” Roush decided to ask his geriatrics colleagues what they thought about looking into the topic of financial elder abuse, little knowing they were about to step into a wide-open field of study.

All people can fall for scams, but as we age, things happen in our brains that cause us to be more vulnerable.

At that time, behavioral economists were talking about financial exploitation of the elderly, but medical experts weren’t weighing in. “I only found two doctors who had published writing about the subject in medical literature,” Roush remembers. He thought it was time for a clinical approach.

“All people can fall for scams, but as we age, things happen in our brains that cause us to be more vulnerable,” Roush says, adding that the main manifestation is Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI), a “slipping” stage of decline characterized by ongoing memory problems. Based on research from the Mayo Clinic, he found 1 in 4 people over the age of 80 have MCI. They can still go out to dinner and play golf, but they have trouble with complex financial skills.

As Roush began researching this vulnerability, he came across the Financial Capacity Instrument, an assessment tool developed by neuropsychologist Daniel Marson that measures an adult’s ability to count coins, balance a checkbook, even detect mail fraud. Roush used the science behind Marson’s work to develop a guide physicians could employ to spot patients who are at risk of being financially defrauded. Since 2009, Roush and his EIFFE team have conducted more than 100 continuing education events in 33 states, training nearly 20,000 healthcare professionals to spot potential fraud victims. The goal is to prevent losses at an age when there’s no time to recoup them.

“Most of us have been socialized to never ask people about money,” Roush says, “but primary care physicians are in a unique position. They see older people when they come in for annual checkups and flu shots, and they can broach the subject without being offensive.”

Almost like first responders, doctors learn how to screen their older patients for exploitation vulnerability and what to prescribe in terms of referrals and reporting. That’s a tall order, since most victims aren’t eager to concede diminished capacity.

Edna Schmeets, 90, poses for a picture with her children at her home in Harvey, N.D. On the table are some of the copious documents the family has collected detailing Edna’s struggles since being scammed out of her life savings by Jamaican criminals.

Edna Schmeets, 90, poses for a picture with her children at her home in Harvey, N.D. On the table are some of the copious documents the family has collected detailing Edna’s struggles since being scammed out of her life savings by Jamaican criminals. Mike McCleary/The Bismarck Tribune via AP

RUSSELL FRAZIER HAS GOOD REASON to think most elder fraud crimes go unreported. He came to such an understanding while working as an investigator in the Vulnerable Adults Unit of the Mississippi Attorney General’s Office. “When people realize they’ve been taken advantage of, they’re embarrassed. They don’t want to admit it,” he says. Many times, falling for a scheme can represent the point of no return. “These older people want to stay independent in their homes, and they know if their kids find out [about the fraud], they’ll put them in a facility.”

Frazier believes diminishing capabilities play a part in financial exploitation, but he points to another reason the elderly can’t get off the phone when the scammer with the Caribbean accent calls. Manners.

“Their generation is more trusting. They think hanging up is rude, and these people know how to keep them on the phone, building a relationship. They know what they’re doing, they know what they’re saying, and they spot the ones that are good targets, and they latch on.”

The good targets are usually lonely and eager for conversation. They own their homes, a nest egg, and a checkbook they keep within reach. In contrast, good scammers claim they don’t own much of anything, but in time they gain the one thing that really matters in such cases—trust.

Long distance or local, it really doesn’t matter. A scammer can be as close as the Thursday afternoon housekeeper or as far away as the guy behind the computer screen in Nigeria. Both, it should be noted, have picked up on Aunt Jane’s penchant for Wheel of Fortune and have memorized the names of all eight of her grandchildren. In time, they also know her Social Security number, savings account details, and what it will take to get her to go to the post office and send a blank check by overnight mail.

Often, it’s sophisticated crime, according to Subrena Rivers, acting captain of the special investigation branch of Washington, D.C.’s Metropolitan Police Department. She says tracking online fraud is especially difficult due to VoIP (Voice Over Internet Protocol), a technology that allows the scammer to be on a computer while the senior adult thinks he’s on a local phone. “When we try to get a subpoena for the IP address, we find most often the IP address location is overseas,” Rivers explains.

But even the nation’s capital has its share of garden-variety elder fraud. Rivers points to a 2019 case when a perpetrator promising home repairs cheated an elderly woman out of $77,000. Family members contacted law enforcement, and jurors the next year indicted the man on three counts of financial exploitation of an elderly person and 10 counts of first-degree theft of a senior citizen.

That case had a paper trail and bank involvement that made it easy to prosecute, but Rivers says in any fraud, situational awareness is key: “Have a conversation with your loved one. Teach them red flags, like pressure to respond quickly or wire money. Show them how to block numbers on their phones.” Her department sends detectives into the community to conduct seminars and hand out pamphlets with tips. “We have some 83,000 residents over the age of 65. We want to try to prevent problems before they happen.”

According to the Federal Trade Commission, older consumers are two times more likely than their younger counterparts to fall prey to sweepstakes scams, a type of fraud that has ballooned alongside the rise of social media. Chris Irving is vice president for consumer affairs at Publishers Clearing House (PCH) in Long Island, N.Y., and he says his organization is battling a brand war as scammers use the PCH name to convince consumers they’ve won prizes. The criminals have done their research. Some even throw in the names of legitimate PCH personalities who show up at prize winners’ doors.

“We’re putting our resources into a two-pronged approach—education and enforcement,” Irving explains. Education includes YouTube videos that stress PCH sweepstakes never require fees to obtain a prize. That’s in stark contrast to scammers who demand money for insurance, taxes, custom fees, or shipping and handling before promised phony winnings will be delivered. On the enforcement side, PCH officials testify at trials around the country, helping agencies convict individuals who claimed to be connected to their company.

PCH’s sweepstakes have been around since 1967, and so have the scams that shadow them, but Irving has noticed something new: “They used to originate in New York or Las Vegas, but they now seem to be coming mostly from Jamaica and Costa Rica. Obviously, if they’re out of range of U.S. territory, it’s much harder for enforcement to go after the bad guys.”

But officials do pursue international fraudsters, and sometimes they succeed. In 2017, the United States worked with Jamaica to extradite eight of their citizens to face charges related to a lottery scheme directed at elderly Americans, but it took the combined work of 10 enforcement agencies—the Jamaican Operations Linked to Telemarketing (JOLT) task force—to do it. According to Jamaican law enforcement, local gangs use telemarketing fraud to raise capital to smuggle weapons into Jamaica and narcotics into the United States.

Congress passed the bipartisan Fraud and Scam Reduction Act in late March. Part of it aims to get federal agencies and financial institutions working together to prevent scams that target seniors. Banks and gift card sellers are often strategically positioned to stop a scam before a payment is processed, and the new law will educate them on the role they can play.

Richard Johnson/Alamy

BACK IN MEMPHIS, eight miles east of the McWherter Senior Center, Lindsay Jones has a first-floor office at the law firm of Patterson Bray, where she specializes in late-age legal matters. Like bankers and physicians, lawyers can sometimes put the brakes on elder fraud before it happens. Jones’ work includes conservatorships, a step beyond a power of attorney that’s often the last resort for those entrusted with someone who can no longer manage their money.

When necessary, Jones investigates to find out if undue influence is involved in the pursuit of a conservatorship, but more often a conservatorship is a helpful tool to protect financial assets, something a set of Jones’ clients learned about the hard way.

The siblings noticed their mother talking about a girl who lived in her neighborhood. “It was a retirement community so it was a little bit unusual, but she was somebody’s niece or granddaughter or something,” Jones explains. The siblings eventually discovered Mom had given the stranger thousands of dollars. After the dust settled, they pushed for a conservatorship.

Jones acknowledges that case involved multiple thefts of five figures, but the amount of loss is relative. “Here in Memphis, like in most larger cities, we have a fair number of low-income residents. For them, losing $1,000 would be losing a lot.”

Either way, she says, emotions run high. Many times a parent doesn’t want to acknowledge that they’re having trouble with diminished capacity, and they push back against the children who are trying to look out for their best interest. It can make for an adversarial relationship.

But someone has to do it, this protective aspect of honoring the aged in the age of elder fraud.

Jones does offer a bit of encouragement to those facing such challenges: “A lot of times the negative reaction is temporary. If you can get through that initial phase, often the relationship will be restored.”

Scam Alert

The FBI reports that millions of elderly Americans fall victim each year to some type of financial fraud or confidence scheme, including romance, lottery, and sweepstakes scams, to name a few. Criminals will gain their targets’ trust and may communicate with them directly via computer, phone, and the mail, or indirectly through TV and radio. Once successful, scammers are likely to keep a scheme going because of the prospect of significant financial gain. Here are ways to protect yourself:

  • Be cautious of unsolicited phone calls, mailings, and door-to-door service offers.
  • Resist the pressure to act quickly. Scammers create a sense of urgency to produce fear and lure victims into immediate action. Call the police immediately if you feel there is a danger to you or a loved one.
  • Never give or send any personally identifiable information, money, jewelry, gift cards, checks, or wire information to unverified people or businesses.
  • Make sure all computer anti-virus and security software and malware protections are up to date.
  • Disconnect from the internet and shut down your device if you see a pop-up message or locked screen. Pop-ups are regularly used by perpetrators to spread malicious software. Enable pop-up blockers to avoid accidentally clicking on a pop-up.
  • Be careful what you download. Never open an email attachment from someone you don’t know and be wary of email attachments forwarded to you.
  • If a criminal gains access to your device or account, immediately contact your financial institutions to place protections on your accounts. Monitor your accounts and personal information for suspicious activity.

How to Report

If you believe you or someone you know may have been a victim of elder fraud, contact FBI Houston at (713) 693-5000 or submit a tip online at tips.fbi.gov. You can also file a complaint with the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center at ic3.gov.—from the FBI website


Kim Henderson

Kim is a World Journalism Institute graduate and senior writer for WORLD. During her career as a homeschool mom, she worked as a freelance writer. Kim resides in Mississippi with her family.

@kimhenderson319

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