Mary Smith* loves playing Publisher’s Clearinghouse. She “always” feels she could win. So when she received a photocopied letter in the mail informing her she had won a third place prize of $100,000 in December 2013, she was ecstatic.
The York County resident called the contact number on the letter, which provided a secret code she repeated to the representative on the line. She needed to pay the taxes up-front and was to purchase Green Dot cards and read the serial numbers to him over the phone. She gave him $3,000 in the form of the cards and another $2,000 after he sent a check for her to deposit.
Then the representative began calling her directly, both on her land line and cell phone she later provided. The man called saying he was stuck away from home and needed money for a plane ticket in an emergency. He “would pay her back.”
In all, she gave him $35,000 during a four-week period, and allowed the perpetrator to change her telephone number (as she was told there were problems with her line).
Joanne Johnson couldn’t reach her mother after receiving a call from the bank that a bad check was returned for $2,000. There was no way to trace the check as it was a fictitious account, and the money was wired to someone outside the country, untraceable. Johnson’s mom explained about the man needing her help, and the new line was traced. Calls were coming from Jamaica and Canada.
“She never thought to call us and tell us,” Johnson says. “We were unable to reach her. She forgot to charge her cell.”
Johnson explains the perpetrators changed her mother’s phone number to further isolate her. A few weeks after the family had it changed again, a woman appeared at her mother’s front door. “John” was on a cell phone, needing to speak with her.
Johnson explained that her mother, a 75-year-old widow living alone for 26 years, would go to the bank and take $5,000 out at a time to help the gentleman who befriended her over the phone.
“They developed a relationship,” she says.
One night, he called her cell phone and told her he was coming to pay her back. The house was staked out and he failed to show.
The family contacted the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office and filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission. The scammers were never found.
“It’s scary,” Johnson admits. “The elderly have no idea… They don’t realize how easily they can be taken advantage of.”
Smith, like so many, fell for a scam related to the Publisher’s Clearinghouse. Other scammers pose as the IRS and call telling victims they owe taxes and get them to pay with cash cards. Still others claim to be from Microsoft and tell the unsuspecting victim about a computer virus and the need to purchase software to protect the computer. In reality, they gain access to the computer and steal the victim’s identity.
Federal Trade Commission (FTC) statistics related to scams and identity theft prove staggering. In 2015, more than 1.2 million fraud complaints were filed in the U.S. with more than $765.2 million paid to scammers. According to the FTC Consumer Sentinel Network Data Book, published in February 2016, 61 percent of payments in 2015 were made by wire transfer. More than 75 percent of the 485,000 fraud victims were contacted by telephone. More than 57 percent were over age 50 and more than 37 percent were over age 60. Pennsylvania ranks 15th out of all 50 states for fraud and other complaints and 25th for identity theft.
Dave Sunday, York County Assistant District Attorney (ADA), first became aware of scams against senior citizens when a case crossed his desk and was tried in 2011. An individual suffering from Alzheimer’s disease agreed to have his driveway sealed for $1,000. The next day, the perpetrator came back and sealed the driveway again for another $1,000. Over a three-week period, the man had his driveway sealed six times to the tune of $12,000.
“I’m sure he (the perpetrator) figured out he had Alzheimer’s the first time he talked to him,” Sunday says.
The victim’s son discovered the crime as he reviewed his father’s checkbook and noticed repeated checks written to the same people for driveway resealing. The suspect was charged with theft by deception and a jury convicted him.
That’s when Sunday realized the scope of the “scam ecosystem” that was “ripping off” seniors. Crimes primarily originated outside the jurisdiction – in other states, other countries and islands.
“Once they are ‘taken,’ it’s next to impossible to get their money back,” he says.
The prevalence of these scams led to the creation of the York County Elder Abuse Task Force, spearheaded by the York County Area Agency on Aging. The task force aims to educate seniors to avoid identity theft and fraud. In addition, state legislative representatives host seminars all over the county at senior centers, to the AARP and retiree groups as often as possible.
“A lot what is happening is common sense but for some reason it’s working,” Sunday notes.
Seniors need to know that they should never pay bills to callers over the phone from money cards, and never cash checks from an unknown source. They need to hang up when the calls come in and never arrange to wire money to anyone outside of the family. Calls in the middle of the night from a muffled line claiming a niece or grandson is in jail should be questioned. Sunday recommends coming up with a “code word” for family members to use in real times of need.
If they think the call from Microsoft or the IRS is legitimate, hang up and call directly, using a number that is associated with the company, not what was provided by the caller, adds Alison Glunt, trial deputy in the York County ADA’s office.
Another popular scam in the area, Sunday says, is the online Casanova, preying on seniors who are alone. They befriend these people on social media or dating websites and tell them they are living overseas but are from York County and miss the area greatly.
“They prey on their emotions,” says Sunday. “I’ve seen people here in York County truly believe they’ve met the love of their life.”
The online Casanovas decide to retire and return to the states to be with the victim. They ask for money so they can “come home” to be together. But, they won’t be paid from their jobs for six months so they need to borrow large sums of money, which should be a large red flag.
“Praying on people and their desire to be loved is one of the most aggressive things to me,” Sunday admits. “Sometimes (seniors) are suspicious but they don’t want to think that someone they love is trying to steal their money.”
Over time, the “sweetheart scammers” become more aggressive in their demands.
Since the fall of 2013, the U.S. Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA) has tracked and investigated the scam through which criminals impersonate IRS employees to extort money from unsuspecting individuals. According to the TIGTA, this is the largest, most pervasive telephone impersonation scam in the agency’s history. To date, more than 1.8 million people have reported to TIGTA that they have received an impersonation call. More than 9,600 victims reported that they paid the criminal impersonators a total amount that exceeds $50 million, including a victim in California who paid scammers $136,000.
In late October, the U.S. Department of Justice obtained an indictment on 56 individuals, located in the United States and at five call centers located in India. This is the largest single domestic law enforcement action to date involving this scam. Despite this significant legal action, Inspector General George encouraged all members of the public to keep their guard up, as scammers like these are still in the business of cheating people.
Inspector General J. Russell George, in a press release announcing the indictment, warned members of the public, “We are concerned that scam and impersonation calls may continue, so it is important that if you receive a call from someone out of the blue who claims to represent the IRS or Treasury, and demands immediate payment to avoid arrest or a lawsuit, it is a scam, and the best thing to do is to just hang up the phone and report the call to us.” Individuals are encouraged to report suspicious calls and activity through the TIGTA website at www.treasury.gov/tigta/contact_report_scam.shtml.
Johnson advises everyone to tell their parents and spouses to be careful of these prevalent scams.
“Keep the lines of communication open,” she says. “Talk about scams. Make them aware that it happens. Explain they should never have to pay fees up front.”
Often, Johnson says, the concept of being scammed is difficult for older citizens to understand.
“They grew up that a handshake is a handshake,” she says. “They trust people. The guy sounded nice, honest. It was a plausible thing that he was traveling and needed help getting home.”
FRAUD PREVENTION TIPS TO AVOID GETTING RIPPED OFF
KEEP AN INVENTORY OF ALL JEWELRY Jewelry is the number one item that is stolen from homes occupied by elders. Keep it in a locked drawer and keep photographs of rare, valuable or sentimental items in a separate location.
EVERY HOME SHOULD HAVE A SHREDDER Every piece of mail containing your name, address and any other identifying information should be destroyed with a criss cross shredder before being discarded. Always shred envelopes, old checkbooks accounts and bank credit card application forms.
PROTECT INCOMING AND OUTGOING MAIL Never allow incoming or outgoing mail to sit in an unsecured mailbox where the public has access. Mailbox theft is rampant.
OBTAIN A CREDIT SEARCH ON YOURSELF AT LEAST TWO TIMES A YEAR The only way to have peace of mind is to obtain a credit search from one of the three major credit bureaus – Experian, Equifax and Trans Union. This will enable you to discover whether someone has applied for or obtained a credit card in your name.
EVERY TELEPHONE SHOULD HAVE CALLER I.D. Caller I.D. capability shows if an incoming call is classified as “private” or “unknown,” which should put you immediately on guard. The telephone is the weapon of choice for today’s crook.
YOU WILL NEVER WIN THE CANADIAN LOTTERY If a smooth talking 25 year old male tells you on the telephone that you are the proud winner of the Canadian lottery, he is a liar. Similarly, if you get an e-mail from Nigeria or letter from Madrid indicating that you could receive a substantial amount of money, ignore it. It is always fraudulent.
ALLOW YOUR BANK TO SEND A DUPLICATE MONTHLY STATEMENT TO A TRUSTED FAMILY MEMBER OR PROFESSIONAL ADVISOR Most financial elder abuse cases are only reported or discovered six to nine months after the initial losses have occurred. Often, elders rely upon the very person who is stealing from them to ensure that the financial transactions are in order. An independent pair of eyes that is able to look over the bank statements every 30 days will catch suspicious activities early.
DON’T ASSUME THAT THE FRIENDLY HANDYMAN IS IN FACT LICENSED Before committing to any work on your home, always obtain at least three estimates in writing and check on the name of the contractor with both the Better Business bureau and with the Pennsylvania State Attorney General’s Office (1-888-520-6680). A license number on a business card could be stolen. Also, never pay more than 10 percent of the contractor price up front.
ALWAYS HAVE A SECOND LINE OF DEFENSE AT YOUR FRONT DOOR / BURGLARS WILL TRY TO DISTRACT YOU!!! Use a locked screen door or a security chain guard at the front door. Crooks will attempt to gain entry to your home by using excuses such as a fake emergency, or false uniforms and badges. This second line of defense enables you to communicate with the stranger on the doorstep without exposing yourself to a forced entry. Never allow any stranger into your home even if the emergency seems real. Instead, call 911.
NEVER BE AFRAID TO ASK FOR HELP If you think that someone is taking advantage of you, they probably are. If it’s too good to be true, it probably is. If you think you have been stolen from, contact the police. If you have an emergency, dial 911.
Remember, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
Source: David Sunday, York County District Attorney’s Office