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. Today, FBI Victim Specialist Debbie Deem shares here definitive list of “what to do” instructions.
For years, I’ve been getting calls from family members concerned that their elderly relatives are the victims of an ongoing scam. Fake lovers, fraudulent lottery winnings, caretaker abuse. They’re all common, and getting worse. The American population is graying, and some who live longer are lucky enough to have life savings to draw on. But we have scant resources to deal with late-in-life money issues.
The crime is a special kind of sad.
For victims, their reality is often flipped. They trust the person on the other end of the computer or telephone, not their own flesh and blood. It can seem impossible to persuade parents or grandparents that they are being played.
That’s where FBI Victim Specialist Debbie Deem comes in. 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.
I wrote about her for CNBC.com recently. Here, she offers her definitive list of suggestions for family members trying to fight against an ongoing scam.
Both Western Union and Money Gram have fraud/security departments where complaints can be filed. They also have programs to basically request that the victim be blocked from being able to wire any money via their services. Publisher’s Clearinghouse also has a fraud hotline and place to report scammers impersonating PCH. Sometimes it is helpful to have a victim call them so that they can hear that PCH will not contact someone over the phone to make a significant prize notification. This is on their website too. That’s been helpful in trying to help victims identify the lies made by the scammers. That works best if still early in the ‘life cycle’ of the scam.
Also, recent federal law now states that telemarketers cannot use WU/MG/or gift cards as a means of payment on phone solicitations. (https://www.ftc.gov/news-events/press-releases/2015/11/ftc-amends-telemarketing-rule-ban-payment-methods-used-scammers) And of course it is illegal to participate in foreign lotteries. Families facing these issues can find very helpful tip sheets from the FTC and other agencies by putting the type of scam with the word scam or victims- in a search engine.
Their serious dangers in being a money mule– a person who either knowingly or unknowingly received money from victims are re-transmits it to the criminal, usually overseas. Mules make it easier for crime rings to get money out of the country. Mules are used so much in romance/lottery/reshipping and work at home schemes. US Cert, the Department of Homeland Security’s cyber unit, has a very good warning. https://www.us-cert.gov/security-publications/understanding-and-protecting-yourself-against-money-mule-schemes
Consider power of attorney, and various levels of more permanent intervention when needed, such as when someone is no longer legally competent, and conservatorship over the estate is required.
Seek counseling options, or local friendship lines such as the one provided by the Institute on Aging at 800-971-0016.
As further part of safety planning: Help the victim identify a family member or friend that they can contact if they are contacted again by a scammer. Having someone they can call for advice before sending any money or responding is crucial.
Contact your local Adult Protective Services if someone is being financially exploited and is an older American or vulnerable adult. Each state has different guidelines on who is eligible for APS services and reporting requirements. www.elderjustice.gov is a good resource that can help to locate the Adult Protective Services office in your state or county.
Long range, friends and family should help protect the victim from possible identity theft, someone opening credit cards or bank accounts in their name or even filing taxes in their name by following the process for identity theft victims in the Federal Trade Commission’s ID theft resource guide. (www.idtheft.gov). The Identity Theft Resource Center( 1-888-400-5530 www.idtheftcenter.org) also has advocates and a very thorough website with resources on various types of scam related identity theft that can help people. There’s also a toll-free number. I would encourage them to put a credit freeze on any accounts, two factor authentication on any computers/cell phones and change the password on important applications or accounts once this is done. www.onguardonline.gov and www.staysafeonline.org have good resources.
Finally, there are some really good programs starting to happen, such as the domestic violence program and phone survivor based support groups.
A police department in Ventura County has volunteers who take mass marketing fraud complaints and enter them into both IC3.gov and the FTC databases.
Other police departments are initiating scam hotlines in which victims and those solicited can make reports. They are staffed by detectives and volunteers who follow up with those scammed, and make APS reports or other referrals where appropriate.
Other police departments are using citizen patrols or other volunteers to ‘check’ in with recent scam victims as ‘friendly visitors’ to ensure they are safe, and hopefully no longer involved in being scammed.
And several state Attorney Generals and state Dept’s of Consumer Affairs may have staff that can assist older Americans as well, or help to supplement and support the position that they are being scammed. They may know of more local resources in each community.