Scammers Look For Vulnerability and Find It in Older People
September 12th, 2019
By: Abby Ellin
Late last month, Kathleen Eaton of Amelia Island, Fla., went online to buy a dog. She found a miniature black schnauzer named Holly at a site she thought was puppyspot.com. She emailed the company and was told she could get the dog for a discounted price of $750.
She asked to pay with a credit card, but was told to wire the money to a Western Union in Oklahoma City. The company would then send her information about Holly’s flight the next day.
“My husband kept saying, ‘I don’t like this,’ but I didn’t listen,” said Ms. Eaton, 75, who retired four years ago from a career managing real estate offices.
She sent the money, and emailed again that evening asking for the flight number, but heard nothing. A few days later she reached out via email and was told that there had been delays, but that Holly would be coming soon. Then another email arrived requesting an additional $950 for health and insurance coverage. “I said: ‘You’re scamming me. I can tell your operation is phony,’” Ms. Eaton recalled.
Ms. Eaton called the police, who are investigating. Most likely, a website similar to the one she wanted popped up — a practice called “spoofing” — and she didn’t realize it. But one thing is clear: She was scammed. And she is hardly alone.
“We often hear from empty nesters who are retired and looking for companionship, so these scams are ripe for that population,” said Amy Nofziger, director of AARP’s Fraud Watch Network Helpline.
The pet scam is one of the latest that older people fall victim to. In March the Department of Justice described criminal cases involving nearly $700 million lost in the previous year by about two million people. The ones hit hardest by this kind of fraud are over 70, and they experience an average loss of $41,800, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau reports.
“Those numbers are underreported because many times seniors are so embarrassed,” said Anna Maria Chavez, executive vice president and chief growth officer at the National Council on Aging.
In other instances, people have no idea that anything is amiss until a collection agency calls to tell them a payment is delinquent. “That’s when they discover that their credit card or Social Security number has been stolen,” Ms. Chavez said.
Besides the pet scam, some of the newer tactics for defrauding older people focus on Social Security, grandparenting and employment searches.
Since 2014, nearly 1.3 million reports have been filed with the Federal Trade Commission about callers pretending to be from the Social Security Administration, Health and Human Services, the Internal Revenue Service, the police or the F.B.I., according to a commission report in July.
“We just had a client who received a phone call claiming there were criminal charges against her over her mortgage,” said Stacy Francis, the president and chief executive of Francis Financial in New York. The client was being pushed to pay to get the charges dropped.
“She immediately called us and her mortgage broker, who we introduced her to, to figure out this problem,” Ms. Francis said. “After some initial panic and chaos on her end, we were able to assure and calm her that it was a scam.”
Deceptive callers might tell victims that their Social Security numbers had been suspended, or that they owed back taxes and must pay immediately or face jail time. Usually, they require cash or a prepaid gift card as payment.
Similarly, with the grandparent scam, the victim receives a phone call or email from a “grandchild” who has been in an accident or is in trouble with the law and needs money — typically gift cards or cash sent through Western Union.
Another report from the Federal Trade Commission noted that last year, people of all ages reported median individual losses of $2,000 to these sorts of “family and friend impostors.” But for people over 70, the figure was $9,000.
With the employment scam, impostors post fake jobs, usually in sales and telecommunications, for which applicants submit their Social Security numbers and other personal information. “They might actually work for a few months before realizing the whole thing is fraudulent,” Ms. Nofziger said.
Fraud capitalizing on natural disasters is also rampant among older people, who may be barraged with requests to donate or to hand over financial information to fake charities. Many of the supposed charities have names similar to existing ones, or phone numbers with Washington’s 202 area code. Or they might say they are working with the I.R.S. to help victims get tax refunds or file claims.
A flip side of scams feeding on people’s largess are those that offer unexpected windfalls. Eight years ago, Mildred Gedraitis, then in her mid-80s, got a message that she had won a sparkling new Mercedes; all she had to do was pay the taxes on it, and she could drive it home to Rochester. That’s what the nice man on the phone had told her, anyway, and that’s what she informed Jay Bellanca, her nephew.
Mr. Bellanca, now 67, was confused. “I said, ‘This doesn’t sound right,’” he recalled.
It wasn’t right. Instead of a prize, it was the start of a long-term ruse involving wire transfers through Western Union to a man in Jamaica, whom Ms. Gedraitis had never met, only spoken to on the phone.
It was especially puzzling to her family: “She had always been tight with money,” said Mr. Bellanca, a retired engineer in Salem, N.Y.
By the time Ms. Gedraitis died in 2015 at 92 with severe dementia, she had lost nearly $350,000 to the fraud and was $190,000 in debt. Her estate is still unsettled.
“My aunt would show up at a Walmart or a Tops store, hobble up in her walker with seven or eight thousand in cash to get a money order to go to Jamaica,” he said. “The problem is that elder folks lose some of their cognitive ability to identify things, and they get scammed.”
Ms. Eaton, who thought she was going on puppyspot.com, still hasn’t gotten a dog or her money back. PuppySpot’s chief administrative officer and general counsel, Josh Kreinberg, said the company accepts only credit cards and PayPal, never cash, Western Union, Moneygram or other such methods of payment.
Ms. Eaton is still reeling from the experience. “I thought I was scamproof,” she said, “till my heartstrings got tugged.”