It sounds good enough at first. You receive a check in the mail that you have won a sweepstakes. The only requirement is that you send a payment to cover fees and taxes. By the time you figure out it’s a scam, however, it might be too late.
Identity theft and elder financial abuse are on the rise, and these days seniors need to be cautious about giving anyone their personal or financial information by phone, mail or email, said local officials during the Senior Scam-Prevention Seminar on Friday, June 14 at the El Dorado Park Community Center.
“There are few emergencies in life that require us to give out money or personal identification immediately,” said Darlene Whitmore, a Long Beach police detective. “Before you sign important documents or wire money, take the time to call a friend, a neighbor or use the Internet to Google it or even call the [police department] to ask our opinion… If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.”
Assemblymember Bonnie Lowenthal, who was unable to attend the event due to budget deliberations in Sacramento, sponsored the seminar that included a panel of local officials, who described harrowing cases of elder abuse and provided tips and resources on how to prevent such scams.
Even though last year’s Elder Abuse Symposium, also sponsored by Lowenthal, drew a crowd of about 225 people, only a handful of people showed up to the symposium last week while 150 chairs were set up.
Lowenthal’s representatives said the “lower-than-average attendance” was likely because of conflicting events but added that the Assemblymember’s office nixed sending out mailers this year and only advertised the event through online notifications and fliers provided at senior centers.
Whitmore, who handles financial elder abuse for the Long Beach Police Department, said she was “disappointed” with the low turnout because she had intended to alert more seniors to be aware of scams, hoping they would share the information with family and friends.
“I actually hoped there would be more people out there I could scare,” she said. “As you heard from these stories, we hope to intend to scare you with a lot of what’s going on so you can be informed not only for yourself but for others as well.”
Speaking in a pre-recorded video, Lowenthal said, each year, nearly a quarter of a million Californians become victims of elder abuse, which has been called “a crime of the 21st Century.” It is estimated that one in 10 seniors nationwide will become victims of some form of “physical, emotional or financial abuse,” however most of them will “suffer in silence” because, “for every case of reported elder abuse, at least five more go unreported,” states a flier from Lowenthal’s office.
Whitmore described cases in which elderly people had their bank accounts nearly wiped out, and some had the deed to their homes taken away from them. Once money is transferred to an overseas account, however, the local police are no longer able to investigate for criminal prosecution, she said.
Elder financial abuse mainly pertains to larceny, embezzlement, forgery, fraud-related crimes and identity theft against a person over 65 years of age or a dependent adult, Whitmore said. She said theft is defined as the taking of personal property from anyone without his or her consent.
One type of scam of which seniors should be aware, she said, is “sweepstakes swindles” in which a senior may have been mailed a check worth large sums of money (from hundreds of thousands of dollars to $2 million).
The checks may look official and indicate the recipient is the winner of a cash prize, but they also often include instructions for a payment to cover associated fees and taxes. Victims are told to wire the payment to a bank account that is usually located outside of the United States. Later, however, the victim finds out the check is counterfeit or stolen, Whitmore said.
Capitalizing on natural disasters such as Hurricane Sandy, “disaster scams” are also a regular occurrence these days, she said. The crime involves scammers, who fraudulently solicit donations for aid. Others may contact seniors by mail, email or phone, claiming that their closest living relative is among those who perished in the disaster, and that the victim is the recipient of an insurance settlement.
The victim may make a payment to cover fees or taxes or provide bank-account information, so settlement money can be electronically transferred into the victim’s account. But the suspect then can access the victim’s account without the victim’s knowledge, Whitmore said.
Another emerging scam is related to the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, the national healthcare reform law slated to go into full effect on Jan. 1, said Dawnnesha Smith, community outreach manager for the Los Angeles County Department of Consumer Affairs, which investigates complaints and consumer-fraud cases in the county, working with prosecuting agencies and local law-enforcement.
With enrollment in state healthcare coverage plans opening in October, there are already reports of scammers calling seniors claiming to enroll them in healthcare plans, only to obtain their personal and financial information over the phone, she said. Smith said phone calls from government agencies are not expected, and the State has a form for members to fill out online through the Covered California website.
“Watch out and be careful,” she said. “Be very leery of anyone calling you and saying they’re going to enroll you over the phone. It will not work that way.”
Smith said there are also recent reports of real-estate fraud, in which agents claim to be able to help seniors out of foreclosure or provide assistance with loan modifications or home refinancing, only to run off with their money.
El Cid de Ramos, a specialist assistant from the Los Angeles County Assessor’s office, added that any caller or mailer offering to reduce a person’s taxes is a scam, since the county assessor’s office provides such services free of charge.
“Most scams these days are regarding the decline in the market, so people are sending information saying, ‘give us $45 and we will get your taxes reduced,’” he said. “That is a scam. The assessor’s office does it for free.”
Whitmore said a “pigeon-drop scam” often involves a suspect, who in some cases is in the country illegally, trying to cash a large inheritance, targeting Hispanic seniors who only speak Spanish. Using a second suspect to act as a contributor with “good-faith money” to develop trust, the suspects later walk away with the cash, never to be seen again.
Whitmore also described a “relative in distress scam,” which has been common in Long Beach. In one instance, a suspect, who acted as an elderly woman’s granddaughter, called the victim and claimed to be in jail in Mexico in need of $45,000 for bail. After the victim wired over the money, the suspect called a second time requesting $20,000 be sent through a MoneyGram transfer.
A bank teller was able to notice something suspicious and brought the money transfer to the attention of the bank’s manager, who contacted family members, and the victim didn’t transfer any further money. “That’s what happens when you have a good relationship with your bank,” Whitmore said.
She said Long Beach is also rampant with “gypsies” or transient criminals, who often intimidate elderly victims for up-front payments for services or car repairs, saying, “I can fix that dent for you” but never follow through.
Another common scam in Long Beach in the last few years has been utility-worker imposters, described as men in their 30s wearing polo shirts, who burglarize homes, Whitmore said. She said real utility workers are identifiable by their uniforms, have City-issued identification, carry official forms and always provide contact information, adding that utility workers almost always show up out upon request for service only.
Whitmore encouraged seniors to call the LBPD about any incident that arouses suspicion. She also told seniors to: not keep their social security cards in their wallets; get on the “do not call” and “do not mail” registries; keep checkbooks in a safe place at home; and always shred important documents.
“Being a victim of any type of scam is never pleasant,” Whitmore said. “Victims often feel angry depressed and/or violated. If this sounds familiar, don’t beat yourself up. Con artists are very good at their craft and have fooled many individuals, including doctors, college professors and even cops. The best way to move past this is to be informed about the scams and pass the word.”
Not all scams are easily discerned, however.
Rosemary Lewallen, coordinator for the Long Beach Elder Abuse Prevention Team, described a case in which an 89-year-old man in Los Alamitos posted an ad on the Internet looking for a caregiver. He had low vision, and his wife had died.
The man became infatuated with a 40-year-old woman whom he hired, showering her with gifts, buying her a diamond ring and taking her on trips. But, as soon as the elderly man became fully blind and fell ill, the woman left and hasn’t returned since, taking much of his money with her, Lewallen said. Although it’s uncertain whether the man’s financial losses were due to gambling or the woman, Lewallen said his family hesitated to get involved out of embarrassment.
Lewallen described another case in which a man in his 60s was overheard at the Long Beach Senior Center talking about drugging older, wealthy women to take advantage of them and later manipulate them into turning their homes over to him. She said authorities are currently investigating the case.
Long Beach Forgery/Fraud Detail: (562) 570-7330
The Internet Crime Complaint Center: ic3.gov
Federal Trade Commission: ftccomplaintassistant.gov
Elder Abuse Hotline: (800) 722-0432
The Eldercare Locator:
(800) 677-1116 or eldercare.gov