NOTE: I’m doing an ongoing series of stories on elder scams, a “tsunami” of crimes hitting the most vulnerable Americans, according to the FBI’s Debbie Deem. Recently, I wrote about the tragic story of a California teacher found murdered in Jamaica. I also wrote about Deem for CNBC.com recently (Click to read that.). In 2015, I predicted “The growing threat of elderly financial abuse,” and why the risk begins as early as age 53. Soon, I’ll have more pieces up on the topic, including a thorough “what to do” set of instructions.
Word that retired Orange County teacher Heidi Ann Muth had been brutally murdered in Jamaica sent shudders through Edward. He’s spent nearly a year desperately trying to get his elderly roommate to stop sending money to a Jamaican scam artists.
Muth’s friends suspect the 68-year-old victim, found with stab wounds in her head and back, had traveled to the island as the result of a scam. Edward live less than an hour away, just outside Los Angeles.
After some relentless Internet searching, and with a little help from a reporter, Edward found the FBI’s best weapon against one of the fastest-growing scams: Victim Specialist Debbie Deem.
Deem doesn’t knock down doors or freeze bank accounts. Mainly, employing her training as a social worker, she just listens.
“Many of these victims just don’t feel important to anyone any more,” she said. Elder scam victims are very much like addicts, she says. “(Scammers) pray on feelings of hope and purpose and giving people a reason to get up in the morning….If you are going to help them, you have to replace whatever they are getting out of the scam.”
Internet scams are as old as the web itself, but two particularly insidious scams targeting the elders are reaching epidemic proportions, the FBI says: lottery and romance scams, often conducted from Jamaica. Criminals often spend months “grooming” victims by appearing to be friendly, and work to isolate them from families and friends. Just this summer, the U.S. Department of Justice extradited a group Jamaicans to North Dakota, alleging they tricked at least 90 people out of more than $5.7 million dollars. That investigation began after a North Dakota woman lost $300,000 .
Arrests are rare, however, and those numbers barely hint at the scale of the crime. Steve Baker, who publishes the Baker Fraud Report, says there are more than 100,000 reports of victims filed with the Federal Trade Commission every year, and estimates that as much as $1 billion is bilked annually.
The effects on victims can be devastating. Some lose all their retirement funds, take out second mortgages. There have been suicides and murders, Deem said, though statistics on them are unreliable. Suicides can come years after the money is stolen — victims hold on to hope for a long time. Authorities may never know real reason victims like Muth died.
Edward’s grandfather, it turns out, believes he has won a lottery, and if he pays a small up-front fee, he’ll collect hundreds of thousands of dollars — enough to move his very sick wife to a better nursing home.
Deem’s first task is to get victims like him to put her on speed dial. Whenever he has the urge to write another check, he calls Deem. It works, most of the time. But there have been relapses. There is no one-time fix, she warns.
“You can’t just say, ‘Bad, bad seniors. Stop this. Don’t do it again,’ and think that’s gonna stop it. It doesn’t,” she said. “I do what can I do to help people understand that one-time interventions aren’t going to work…It’s a process, like falling for a scam is a process.”
Deem also works with sex trafficking victims, and employs some of the same strategies with elderly victims, including the “stages of change” model.
“Most changes are a transition. Most people don’t just decide one day to change something and do. Most important, this allows for people to relapse,” she said. “Most behaviors work like that.
“Often, these folks are talking to scammers 2 to 6 times each day. That’s a big chunk of their lives,” she said. “Recently I started working with a 96-year old woman. Her life is on her tablet. There’s no way she’s going to a senior center. These contacts give her hope. You can see the sparkle in her eye. She thought she had 2-3 lovers. We really have to be careful what we are taking away.”