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Don't Be Fooled by Scams

By Robin Lacrimosa

I’ve spent my entire career working with older adults. I’ve seen a thing or two, especially when it comes to scams. The stories I’m about to share are composites of many similar stories I’ve heard in my more than three decades working with seniors. I share these stories so you’ll feel less alone if something similar has happened to you or someone you love.

Scam #1: They Said She Won the Lottery

A woman in her 80s (let’s call her Julie) got a call from a person (let’s call her Sylvia) saying that she had won the lottery. This is exciting news for anyone, and Julie was thrilled. The day she had long dreamed of had finally arrived.

Sylvia told Julie that she would have to do some very specific things to get her money. The money would be arriving on a certain day, but due to tax laws, it wouldn’t arrive in a single lump sum. Julie would need to have four different bank accounts to receive her prize, and the money would be distributed across those accounts.

Julie only had two bank accounts, her checking and savings, so she opened two new ones and gave the account numbers, user IDs, and passwords for all four accounts to Sylvia, who told her when to expect her deposits. Sylvia also informed Julie that she would have to prepay the taxes on her winnings before the funds could be released to her four bank accounts. Julie did so willingly.

This all seemed perfectly legitimate at the time. Sylvia called regularly to give Julie updates on the process. Sylvia called so often that she seemed like a friend. Julie didn’t think anything of giving Sylvia her account information, but her bank noticed something fishy. Julie’s checking and savings accounts had always carried high balances, but Sylvia and her fellow schemers withdrew most of the money, and then used the remainder as collateral for lines of credit they opened in Julie’s name.

When her bank called to tell her that more than $200,000 had been withdrawn and that the scammers had stolen her identity, Julie didn’t believe them. Sylvia was so nice, so caring, so giving. How could someone so lovely do something so terrible? It took a while for Julie to accept the truth and she didn’t want anyone to know. She was so embarrassed that she didn’t report the scammer to the authorities.

Scam 2: It Started with Craigslist

Dave’s scam story started when he responded to an ad on Craigslist. He tried to buy a laptop, gave the seller money, and then didn’t get the laptop. That’s when the trouble started. Dave got scammed again and again.

I believe that there is a scam network. Once you get scammed the first time, your name goes on a list. Other scammers see the list and know you’re an easy mark. That’s what happened to Dave. The scammers kept calling. Dave had won the Publisher’s Clearinghouse drawing, they told him. All he had to do to claim his winnings was to provide account numbers so they could direct deposit his winnings. They would come by in a week with balloons, flowers, and a TV camera. Thinking this was legitimate, Dave did everything the scammers asked him to. He lost thousands of dollars and his identity to the scammers. Eventually, Adult Protective Services and the local police department got involved. To the end, Dave refused to believe that he was the victim of fraud.

Scam 3: They Just Kept Calling

Debora lives in a memory care community now, but when she got scammed, she was still living on her own. Her cognitive impairment was getting worse, but the family didn’t realize how bad it was. Scammers called Debora multiple times a day asking for money. If the callers happened to catch Debora during a moment of lucidity, she would hang up on them. Other times, when the scammers called asking for money, she would walk to the kitchen to get her checkbook, then forget to come back to the phone. If the scammers timed it just right, she would answer the phone and be in the mood to chat with them, surrendering money and personal information in the process. It was like a game of Russian Roulette for the scammers, so they just kept calling. Eventually, they started showing up at her house, claiming to be collecting money for the policeman’s fund and many other faux causes.

What’s the takeaway? If you or someone you know has been scammed, I want you to know that you are not dumb. It’s just that these scammers are super smart. They're really good at what they do. They know that most older adults are lonely, and they know what buttons to push.

Older adults aren’t the only victims. It happens to everyone. It’s just a matter of degree. I was at Academy Sports just before Christmas one year. I had just bought a bike for my kid and was loading it in my car. A young woman came up to me. She said she needed to get dinner for her kids, and I gave her five bucks. I knew better. I knew she wasn’t using that money for dinner for her kids. But in that moment, I gave in. I bought into a small degree scam.

These scammers choose a target demographic in the same way doctors choose a specialty. They choose a target and perfect their story. They figure out what's going to work, just like that lady knew that I was a mom because I was loading up gifts for my kids. She knew exactly what buttons to push.

These days, more scammers than ever specialize in older adults. They adapt to the current environment and once they start finding something that works, they keep using that over and over.

If a scam happens to you, don’t let your embarrassment keep you from reporting it to the authorities. You are not alone. Help is available. This link is a good place to start:


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