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Scams Targeting Seniors

There have been a number of stories in the news recently about seniors targeted by fraudsters.

The ruse is an old one: they get a phone call from a grandchild, saying they are in trouble.  The story may vary, but the end result is the same. John or Sue is in trouble, and they are too afraid or ashamed to go to their parents. But they need money, either to pay a lawyer, post bail, or replace a lost plane ticket.

Maybe you have received a telephone call like this before, or know someone who has. How is it that a stranger knows so much information about you or your loved ones? The answer: they don't.

People give away a lot of information in general conversation without realizing it. For instance, a grandparent may inadvertently give out the name of a grandchild in conversation. Alternatively, the perpetrator may give a name, but say they are calling on behalf of the grandchild, who is in trouble. Like most scams, the idea is to prompt for information, then create a sense of urgency to distract the victim from the suspicious nature of the call.  The senior or other vulnerable person is then duped and cheated out of their money, just because they wanted to help someone in need.

Residents of an assisted living residence were targeted recently.  Using the scam above, a senior was not only cheated out of her life savings, but also out of pocket for a loan she took out to help her "grandson". The bank did question the senior about the withdrawal, but they were powerless to stop her. After all, it was her money.  Privacy laws also prevent banks from disclosing a person's financial information to others. Not only did the senior lose her money, but she now has monthly loan payments she cannot afford to make.

Typically these crimes involve a panicked phone call, then moving the money by Western Union, a courier, or another method not easily traceable. It likely goes to an address out of town.  It will be impossible to call them back for some reason, such as being in jail, the hospital, etc.  They may start with relatively small amounts and then repeat the ruse, each time with a new complication to the story and another fictitious expense.

There are some common safeguards you can follow to safeguard against this and similar frauds:

  1. Beware of unsolicited phone calls in general. Rather than trusting the identity of the person on the other end, be suspicious until proven otherwise.
  2. Never let anyone rush you into action.  Scam artists rely on fear and distraction to make their ruse work.  A legitimate request would likely have alternatives to this rushed time frame.
  3. Ideally, confirm the story with a family member or friend first.  If it really is your grandson or granddaughter, you should be able to call them back on their phone number to verify.    
  4. Do not give out any personal information.  Often these people will "fish" for information, and then feed it back to you without you realizing you volunteered it in the first place.
  5. Call the police. Most often you are just one of many being targeted in the scam.

Above all, trust your instincts. If something doesn't sound right, there is probably a good reason. It's never too late to ask questions or report a suspicion. Don't feel ashamed or embarrassed. This can happen to anyone. You will very likely prevent another person from being victimized.     

Read more about fraud and forensic accounting at
Colleen is the author of Exit Strategy, a Katerina Carter fraud thriller available at here or here.