Scammers who prey on the elderly just keep getting better at it, according to Julie Wiggins, Regional Long Term Care Ombudsman for the High Country Area Agency on Aging.
“These people are educated and skilled at what they do,” she said. “They have narrowed it down to a science.”
Wiggins, a member of the Ashe County Elder Abuse Prevention Team (ACEAPT), said the eldery are targeted by scammers for two reasons: they tend to be unsuspecting and to have resources.
“The current generation of elderly are characteristically trusting and want to do the right thing,” she said. Scams asking for prepayment of taxes on supposed sweepstakes winnings or payment of delinquent bills are effective for this reason.
“Seventy-five percent of the nation’s consumer wealth is held by people over 50. They have pensions, savings, investments and equity for exploiters to to tap into,” Wiggins said.
The target age for scammers is about 70, she said, an age when early-stage dementia begins for many elderly. But, she said, victims come from all social and economic backgrounds.
A multi-disciplinary team comprised of members of different agencies, the ACEAPT provides training and case consultation to prevent and respond to elder abuse. The team holds annual forums at Ashe Services for Aging to raise awareness of financial exploitation of the elderly, the most recent of which was held in September.
Ashe County Sheriff’s Detective William Sands, an ACEAPT member, said people in the mountains of western N.C. are particularly hard-hit by out-of-country scams in recent years, according to FBI reports.
“We continue to have reports of sweepstake scams,” said Sands.
“In the past, people were to send money for prepayment of taxes and handling charges on their winnings. These amounts ran into thousands of dollars,” he said.
“Now the scam has changed some. People are required to send anywhere from $5-25 to find out if they are a winner. Most say they can afford that much. Of course, then the scammer has their personal information,” he said.
“This continues with more of the same through the (mail), and normally includes telephone calls to the victims. I have cases where people receive a dozen or more letters a day. Most have never entered a sweepstakes contest,” he said.
“Another continuing issue is purchases through the Internet. People prepay for items that never come, some very costly. Money going out of the country will never be recovered,” he said.
“We continue to tell people ‘if it seems to good to be true, it is,’” said Sands.
According to Wiggins, not all financial abuse of the elderly comes from scammers and con-artists. “The majority of exploiters are actually family members,” she said.
Exploitation by family is a “gray area,” she said. While some may deliberately steal from elderly family members, others will use resources that aren’t theirs under the comfortable rationale: “Mom would want me to have this.”
Victims are often too embarrassed to report being taken in by scammers. Family members who suspect their parents or grandparents have been victims of financial exploitation should look for these warning signs published by the N.C. Department of the Secretary of State (SOS):
• Sudden changes in bank account or banking practice, including unexplained withdrawal of large sums of money by a person accompanying the elder
• The inclusion of additional names on an elder’s bank card signature
• Unauthorized withdrawal of the elder’s funds using the elder’s ATM card
• Abrupt changes in a will or other financial documents
• Unexplained disappearance of funds or valuable possessions
• Substandard care being provided or bills being unpaid despite adequate financial resources
• Discovery of elder’s signature being forged for financial transactions or for the titles to his/her possessions
• The provision of unnecessary services
• Sudden appearance of previously uninvolved relatives claiming their rights to an elder’s affairs and possessions
• Unexplained sudden transfer of assets to a family member or someone outside the family
According to the SOS, “The ‘successful’ con artist is a marketing expert who understands human nature, and preys upon our fears or desires by unleashing a variety of psychological tactics. The key to avoid becoming an investment fraud victim is to recognize the pressure tactics, and to remember that it is OK to say ‘no’ to an unsolicited sales pitch.”
Some common tactics employed by scammers include:
• Promises of wealth: the salesperson dangles the promise of wealth in a short period of time, often “guaranteed” or with “little risk involved.”
• Trappings of success: the salesperson projects the image of success or offers testimonials, “proving” he and the offer are “legitimate.”
• ” The lemming effect”: the salesperson tells you that others are investing, and that you should, too, or risk missing out on a good deal.
• Favors: the salesperson gives you something — a free meal, discount, etc. — hoping you will feel obligated to give him something in return.
• Act now! : the salesperson pressures you to “act fast” because the offer will be available “only for a limited time.”
If you believe you have been defrauded of if you suspect someone you know has been taken in a scam, send a written complaint to a securities advisor at the N.C. Department of the Secretary of State Securities Division PO Box 29622 Raleigh, NC 27626 or call (800)688-4507.