The fight against fraud: How to protect seniors (and yourself) from being victims

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May 11, 2011 - 7:00pm

Seniors make up one-eighth of the population but suffer from one-third of all scams. From malware emails to bogus lotteries to identity theft, older Americans are considered easy targets.

"Right before I retired, (I interviewed) a lady in Kansas City," said risk management specialist and retired FBI special agent Jeff Lanza at a recent presentation on senior fraud and identity theft in Lincoln. "She lost $70,000. She wire transferred $70,000 to Nigeria. And I asked her the same question that you might - 'Ma'am, why did you do that?'

"And she said, 'I was convinced I was going to get a million bucks.'"


Photo by Hilary Stohs-Krause

Retired FBI agent Jeff Lanza speaks on identity theft and senior fraud at a recent Better Business Bureau-sponsored event in Lincoln.

A public service announcement on senior fraud from the National Crime Prevention Council

Click here for the results of a 2011 AARP survey of Nebraskans 50 years and older

According to the National Institute of Justice, Americans aged 50 years and older lose more than $20 billion dollars annually to telemarketing fraud. A 2011 AARP survey found that 77 percent of Nebraskans over 50 say consumer fraud is "extremely/very important," but only 26 percent say they have everything they need to protect themselves.

Scammers target seniors for a variety of reasons, such as higher levels of disposable income and loneliness.

"Seniors are more trusting, I would say," said Madhavi Bhadbhade, manager of the Senior Medicare Patrol program with the State Unit on Aging. "That's why they may give out a social security number that fraudsters use ... You know, they play on their emotions."

Ten percent of people 65 years and older and nearly half of people 80 years and older suffer from some form of memory loss, dementia or Alzheimer's disease.

And generationally, they were raised to be polite and accommodating on the phone.

But there are ways seniors, their family members and caretakers can watch out for the plethora of scammers attempting to defraud them.

For example, keeping a script by the phone that seniors can refer to when dealing with pushy telemarketers.

"Keep the lines of communication open, always," said Sharon Brodhagen, branch manager of the Lincoln Better Business Bureau. "And it's always a good idea to peruse mail, and if you have the opportunity, to look at a check register to see where checks are being mailed."

Lanza agreed that monitoring seniors' mail and email is important. Watch for envelopes that say things like, "Urgent!" or "Open now!" but were sent bulk rate. Anything having to do with a lottery or sweepstakes is most likely fake especially if sent from a foreign country.

"You know, if you didn't enter a lottery, you can't win," Brodhagen said flatly. "And very few people have entered the Australian lottery.

"We hear about lotteries and sweepstakes everyday," she continued. "And sometimes it's Publisher's Clearinghouse, sometimes its Reader's Digest. But usually it's just the scammer."

In her 21 years at the Better Business Bureau, Brodhagen says she's never spoken with someone who actually won the lottery.

Key sign it's probably a scam: if you have to pay to receive your winnings.

"So they think they've won the lottery, and they're told to just wire, say, $3,500 to pay their taxes up front," said Denise Jaworski, vice president of global consumer protection programs for Western Union, "and then once they wire that money they'll get their proceeds of a million dollars or whatever."


Click here for a report from the National Institute for Justice concerning telemarketing criminals

Click here for a document from the Nebraska attorney general's office on preventing senior fraud

Click here for a pamphlet from the National Crime Prevention Council on seniors and telemarketing fraud

She said the company trains agents to watch for signs of fraud, such as mentioning a lottery or coming back time and again to wire large sums of money.

The so-called grandparent scam is also a common trick, she said. Fraudsters will call seniors pretending to be a grandchild detained at a border crossing or in trouble in a foreign country, and they ask the victim to wire them funds.

Experts say to either call the person in question directly, even if they say not to, or to ask a question only the grandchild could answer.

Double-checking everything is the best policy, retired FBI agent Lanza says. Always ask for verification. Always ask for time to think about offers.

"You know, if you want to say, I want to check with the Better Business Bureau here in town, just to see if this is something someone has experienced before,' they're going to tell you you don't need to do that," Lanza said. "And if they tell you that, that's a sign.

"You know I tell kids, if someone tells you you meet somebody online says, Keep this a secret,' that's when you run and tell somebody."

In terms of wire transfers, Jaworski with Western Union says you can add family members who continually fall victims to scams to an interdiction list, which prevents them from wiring any more funds.

As for Medicare fraud, Bhadbhade with the State Unit on Aging says a good habit is to read over every medical bill and statement carefully, looking for errors. First, contact the provider to see if they can fix it, and if that doesn't work, contact the state attorney general's office.

Bhadbhade said that fortunately, fraud isn't as widespread in Nebraska as in places like Florida and Texas, but seniors and their families need to be vigilant - scams can manifest in every imaginable way.

"There was one hearing aid company that was doing some mailings to seniors (in the area) about hearing aid stimulus,'" she said. "When we hear about this, we mobilize our volunteer network and let the others know that this is out there, so watch for it."

Lanza says internet-based fraud will probably see a decline as younger generations enter the ranks of seniors.

"Technologically speaking, yes, it will be harder to do those scams," he said, "because people are now in the computer generation and growing older, becoming more comfortable with that, whereas seniors have had to transition into that."

All experts interviewed for this story stressed that once fraud has been committed, it's next to impossible for seniors to recover their money.

"Once you've been victimized, you're really not going to get the money back," Lanza said, "and your life is really thrown into a tailspin. It could affect you for a long time, in terms of financially and mentally."



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