Scams aimed at bilking money from victims frequently target seniors who tend to be more trusting and have built retirement savings, say Spokane police and Better Business Bureau professionals.
Calls from the elderly to check on potential scams come in steadily to the Spokane-based Better Business Bureau Serving Eastern Washington, North Idaho, and Montana, says Chelsea Dannen, a spokeswoman for the agency. The calls involve everything from lottery scams to people going door to door claiming to sell Medicare insurance.
Scammers often purport to offer products and services similar to those of legitimate businesses, but the proposition typically involves high interest rates or upfront payment for products that never arrive or promises that never are fulfilled.
"The elderly were raised in a generation when you left your doors unlocked and you ran over to your neighbors to borrow something," Dannen says about why scammers approach seniors. "They often live alone. They're often more trusting, (and) they're often on fixed incomes, so their minds are more open to reducing payments or winning a sum of money."
Spokane Police Department detective Kirk Kimberly, project coordinator of the Vulnerable Adult Linked Organization Response (VALOR) team, says monetary crimes against seniors include supposed lottery wins and door-to-door cons. Another is the so-called Nigerian scam that usually has the pretense of an official in peril offering to transfer millions from that country into someone's bank account in exchange for a small upfront fee.
However, Kimberly says that most often, cases involve a family member, friend, or caretaker illegally gaining access to an elderly person's funds. Such activity might appear to be on the rise in part because of greater awareness through VALOR, which formed a Spokane-area interdisciplinary networking group called Vulnerable Adults Links United, he adds.
Kimberly says VALOR was formed four years ago with the help of a $380,000 federal grant and involves such participants as law enforcement, the Spokane division office of Washington state Department of Social and Health Services' Adult Protective Services, and Spokane Bank Security Organization, which represents financial institutions here.
"Research nationally shows that stranger-to-stranger financial victimization is rare," Kimberly says. "Being victimized financially by a family member or close friend happens about 85 to 95 percent of the time in these cases nationally. Locally, the majority of my financial cases mirror that."
He adds, "We believe the community is becoming better educated that these are actually crimes. It's somebody who can do two things: No. 1, someone who can isolate the victim, and No. 2, gain access to an account."
Gordon Grant, a Spokane Police Department patrol officer, often works as a uniformed officer on VALOR cases being investigated as financial crimes against seniors. In some cases, he says, an elderly person doesn't even report the loss of money involving family.
"The reason is senior citizens say for a grandson or a nephew, 'They've fallen on hard times and they really did need it,' so they justify it in their minds even when they have money missing," Grant says.
Kimberly adds, "With family members and close friends, there are different dynamics such as undue influence, a mishmash of different emotions. You have guilt because if something is found out, they don't want to send a relative to jail. There's fear of isolation from other family or from the person caring for them. There's fear of them refusing to take them places, fear of being put in an institution."
Grant also has conducted a lot of research about financial crimes against seniors based on his personal experience. He held power of attorney and oversaw affairs for his elderly mother in Arizona before her death at age 79 this past fall. Grant says she was suffering from dementia and Alzheimer's when someone came to her home and talked her into signing a reverse mortgage document.
"The carrot was, they give her a certain amount of cash, and the idea is you can still live in your home; they go after people who have already paid off their homes," Grant says. The contract was about 60 pages, with a very high interest rate. "The conditions were if you miss a payment, then you forfeit; It was deeply buried (in the contract). The way I was able to combat this is I took the contract information down to the attorney general's office."
Grant adds, "If people have any question whether someone is a viable, contact the attorney general's office. If you're not sure about a business, check with the Better Business Bureau and see if they have any black marks against them. If they demand the money right now, then no. Most will provide a charitable tax number, or they'll provide contact information."
Dannen agrees that the Better Business Bureau often can help when people have questions, and says one red flag for mortgage-related scammers is excessive upfront fees.
"We can easily or quickly tell you if something sounds like a scam or not," Dannen says. "We can help you determine your options."
She adds, "A lot of scammers prey whenever the government changes anything because people don't understand it yet, and there's confusion, so there's a lot of reverse mortgage and mortgage lending scammers. In this economy, people are looking to avoid foreclosure. We also recommend you call the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and they will be able to direct you."
Lately, the agency has had more calls from seniors in the region saying they've received either a phone call or a letter that they've won a large sum of money.
"The twist that's new on it is we've been getting calls from elderly people lately saying that instead of the letter writer telling them to wire the money, they tell them to purchase a prepaid debit card and give them the number of the debit card," Dannen says. "That way the victim feels more confident, but the scammer is still getting cash, and the victim isn't receiving any winnings."
Dannen adds, "We're starting to get the calls about the door-to-door solicitations. Security systems door to door are common, and the elderly are often looking for that extra security, so they're a common target. The other scam that recently came around that also targeted seniors are Girl Scout cookie scams by girls selling cookies with some makeshift order form and asking for payment upfront. They should only be collecting money when cookies are being delivered to the customer."
Financial crimes involving family or close family friends have a different set of dynamics, and other family members or advocates for the elderly can watch for red flags, both Grant and Kimberly say.
In some cases, a family member or caretaker who receives an agreed-upon sum to provide care begins to feel justified in taking more money after a period of time, Grant says. While caretaker stress is a valid concern, he says, "It's not an excuse for financial exploitation. They're thinking, 'I'm here 24-7, and they owe me,' so they justify their behavior when in fact it's criminal action."
He adds, "Usually they don't approach the family; they approach the elderly relative. It usually comes out in a matter that's nonthreatening. Sometimes it builds from there."
Grant says one case about a year ago involved a man in his 80s who had a live-in caregiver in her 40s. "She did the telltale signs of manipulation and isolation, no access, with the blinds closed," Grant adds. "Previously, this person was in the garden and would go out even with a walker and talk to people. Before they knew it, they were engaged."
He adds that Kimberly and the police department were able to intervene at the request of the man's family, and because a bank had noticed a pattern regarding the man's accounts. "She was dismissed, and her name was taken off of several accounts," Grant says.
He adds, "Red flags are large sums of money being taken out by a caregiver, having the senior sign over accounts that they previously weren't a part of, basically gaining financial control of either the property or stocks and bonds, checking and savings."
Kimberly suggests that if another family member or friend of a senior is suspicious, they can report their concerns to Adult Protective Services or to law enforcement.
"The two biggest red flags for victimization are, No. 1, signs of cognitive decline such as the onset of dementia or Alzheimer's, and No. 2 is isolation," Kimberly says. "If these two are happening, there is an increasingly significant chance that this person will be victimized."
Grant says that seniors also need to be watchful about people gaining access to their personal information. With a computer, criminals often just need a name, address, and phone number to gain additional personal information online.
"Look out for your elders financially and physically," Grant adds. "If you don't have the means to do so yourself, adequate services are provided for them because they do exist. Adult Protective Services of Spokane has a huge catalog listing people who help with everything from wills to Meals on Wheels. It's all about checking with these organizations."
Subscribe today to our free E-Newsletters!SUBSCRIBE