Recently, I received a very strange voicemail from my grandfather indicating he had put together the money to bail me out of jail. Obviously, this message caught my attention, because at that moment I was watching TV on the couch with my fiancé, a far cry from wearing an orange jumpsuit behind bars. I immediately called back and learned that someone claiming to be a lawyer contacted him indicating I was currently in prison for getting into a car accident due to driving while texting. And of course, I would be released from jail if my grandfather sent the attorney $9,800 for my bail. I quickly informed him none of that story was true, and he should under no set of circumstances send this individual money. Thankfully, no real harm was done to my grandfather, and this incident will only serve as a cautionary tale for when another con artist inevitably preys on him.
Later that day, I was on the phone with my grandmother and relayed my grandfather’s story. During the call, she told me of a different scam she experienced where someone called claiming to be her bank and said she owed them $3,000. Fortunately, she called my mother to verify the caller’s claim, and my mom quickly realized it was a scam.
While both of my grandparents were lucky, I know that countless seniors are not so fortunate. After hearing my grandparents’ stories, I couldn’t help but wonder about other types of sophisticated scams that target seniors. After researching, I learned that con artists call seniors claiming to be from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) indicating that they owe the government money for taxes, and failure to pay will result in their arrest. Another scam occurs when people read the obituaries, then call the grieving family asking for money, fraudulently claiming the deceased was in their debt.
Can you imagine the type of low-life who calls seniors, scaring them into thinking they are going to jail, or steals money from the elderly while they are grieving for a loved one?
Last March, the Senate Special Committee on Aging had a hearing called “Stopping Senior Scams,” where this was topic was addressed. During the hearing, Chairman Susan Collins disclosed the IRS impersonation scam had been the most consistently reported to the Committees’ hotline over the past three years. Furthermore, because of information obtained by the hotline, the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration was able to arrest 15 people associated with a scam that stole about $9 million. However, efforts to fight this type of criminal behavior must continue in earnest, because according to the Department of Justice, about $3 billion continues to be stolen from seniors each year.
According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), seniors are unfortunately susceptible to scams for a variety of reasons. These include: Older Americans tend to own “nest eggs” and have outstanding credit; seniors often do not report fraud because they are embarrassed or unsure of who to contact; and scam artists know that seniors make poor witnesses because they have a difficult time recalling facts. A former conman awaiting sentencing in California for the “grandparent scam” explained, “You can make $10,000 sometimes in a day if you do it properly,” despite only generating a 2 percent success rate. Asked why scammers pick on seniors, he said, “We target people over the age of 65, mainly, because they're more gullible…They're at home. They're more accessible. Once you get them emotionally involved, then they'll do anything for you, basically.”
So, what can seniors do to avoid being taken advantage of? It’s simple: Never give personal financial information over the phone, unless you placed the call; set privacy settings on social media accounts to their highest levels; and, to ensure that a phone call is really coming from a loved one, ask questions over the phone that only a family member would know.
Hopefully, through public awareness and education, seniors can be less vulnerable to these types of scams. However, in the meantime, I applaud my great-uncle, who has been frequently targeted by these types of scams.
He simply hangs up the phone, but beforehand, he asks the con artist, “Does your mother know what you do for a living?”
Evan Carmen, Esq. is the Assistant Director for Aging Policy at the B’nai B’rith International Center for Senior Services. He holds a B.A. from American University in political science and a J.D. from New York Law School. Prior to joining B’nai B’rith International he worked in the Office of Presidential Correspondence for the Obama White House, practiced as an attorney at Covington and Burling, LLP, worked as an aide for New York City Council Member Tony Avella and interned for Congressman Gary Ackerman’s office. Click here to read more from Evan Carmen.
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