SENIOR SCAMS: DETECTION AND PREVENTION: Kris R. Ludwigsen, PhD
A scam is a transaction involving deception that benefits one party at the expense of the other. Scams abound like cold germs in winter; we can take protective measures (hand washing) but the odds are that we’ll be exposed and may succumb at some point. Seniors are prime targets based on: (1) specific areas of naivete, (2) vulnerability/ availability, and (3) access to affluence.
Naivete/blind spots re your computer, car, home operating systems, etc., when things go awry in systems that are too complicated for the average user to understand. We have a functional but not a systemic understanding of what we rely on; and we live in an increasingly complex, interdependent society.
Vulnerability/Availability: An immediate (AC out) or ongoing need (loneliness); traveling alone; being sick or recovering from surgery and needing help with home maintenance or repairs. We’re most susceptible to fraud within three years of a traumatic event, e.g., deaths, illness, or a move to a new residence, per AARP. Plus, seniors are vulnerable to cognitive decline: Like swiss cheese our memory has holes starting at age 50; ongoing problems soak up our concentration and our ability to multitask, to process new/complex information in order to make decisions slows down with aging.
Financial resources: IRAs, investments, nest eggs, etc., designated for emergencies and retirement, or the ability to borrow large amounts of money.
Per AARP about 1/3 of all scam victims are 65 or older, but are only 1/8 of the US population. Other scams target specific religious, ethnic, or sexual “affinity groups,” e.g., Veterans
Types of scams
Financial investments (Bernie Madoff): Free-lunch seminars hawking dubious products; Telemarketers offering “no-risk” investments; financial/fiduciary abuses
Homeowner scams: Dubious moving company estimates; Unnecessary repairs, replacements or renovations. Workers who claim to be from your HOA or who “up-sell” more repairs until you’re bled dry.
Health Care: Callers asking for your Medicare/SSN number, claiming that Medicare is issuing new cards, entitlements or refunds that require “verifying” your SSN. Callers offering free/discounted medical supplies for diabetes, heart disease, etc., who need your age, SSN, MD’s name and phone number (a red herring?). In medical identity theft impostors obtain health care services under your name. Bogus contracts for nonmedical homecare as a substitute for (more expensive) long-term care insurance. (CVS was recently fingered for product logos too similar to name brands, designed to confuse buyers.)
Identity thieves engage in dumpster diving, steal wallets or purses or skim credit/debit cards via special devices. They go “phishing” to get you to reveal personal info in spam or pop-up messages or on your iphone, or send in a “change of address” form. They can follow mail delivery vans and they check your mailbox for new checks, tax info, or bank/credit card statements; or personal records from employers or others who have access to the information.
Travel/ vacation scams in winning a “free vacation,” rentals, time shares difficult to get out of; other property or land purchase scams (swamp land in Florida years ago).
Lotteries and sweepstakes that require a fee to claim nonexistent prizes (cars) or cash. If you send the ($39.95) fee you’re on the sucker list and ripe for future come-ons by mail, phone or Internet. Some mail a phony “partial-payment” check under $5000 to deposit to further lure you in. (By law banks must make the amount available in five days but are actually fronting the money until the check clears.)
Sympathy appeals: Someone you know is in trouble and needs money, e.g., your grand-kids have been kidnapped (a child is screaming in the background) or are in a Mexican jail for drug use (college students); Friends just had their wallet stolen in a foreign country and are stranded; Widows/widowers (Rossmoor) are begged to send funds via wire transfer to cat-fishing online friends/romancers with a “temporary (or dire) need,”who then disappear or are declared dead. (Where’s the obituary?)
Unnecessary/protection “services” for your computer, e.g., that require remote access (may lead to identity theft), car, home maintenance and repair. Workers can then “discover” additional problems. “Security checks” (AmEx); “account billing info” (Netflix)
Mode of contact
Via your computer: e.g., Microsoft (blaring, but no logo) has identified a major problem and has frozen your computer; call this toll-free number to authorize remote access to “fix” it. Perps then install malware, charge you to remove it, and offer a monthly “protection service” for $24.99. E-mails from B of A warn of “suspicious activity” in your account. Client Care Experts in Florida (senior haven) installed phony pop-up warnings on computers. A Microsoft study found that 4/5 Americans had been hit with tech support scams. EBay sellers post a photo of the quality name-brand merchandise, then ship the knockoff (NY Times).
AmEx” (with official blue logo) or your bank needs more personal data to “update” their records (= artisanal spam with personalized traps); Ransomware can freeze your electronic records; FedEx has a delivery for you; FaceBook contains phony apps and connections to malware-infected links. FB info is “harvested” for names of grandstands, when you’re on vacation, etc.
E-mails claiming to be from the IRS aim to steal your money and/or identity. Identity thieves can file taxes early after obtaining your SSN. They collect personal data from LinkedIn and other social networking sites, obituaries, www.ancestry.com. Bogus e-mails from the CEO or HR asking corporate employees for log-in credentials. Internet sites can masquerade as the DMV, etc., to charge more for renewing online; “Yahoo” threatens to cancel your account; “Microsoft” voicemails that your services are about to be canceled. Smartphones can be hacked; malevolent links sprout on Twitter.
Via telephone: The IRS is filing a lawsuit against you–call this number (or the CC Sheriff’s office) immediately; Microsoft/Windows will eliminate your services by 3:00 unless you call; PGE will cut off your power tomorrow if you don’t pay now by credit card. Threats to arrive at your door to do harm or haul you off to jail. Caller IDs can be manipulated via“spoofing” products or Internet-based phone lines displaying a legitimate-appearing numbers or organizations; the FBI nabbed a ring of scammers operating out of India.
Via US mail: Flyers offering a “free”/ low cost (heating system) inspection or other services; Mailbox “fishers” stealing mail/checks for identity theft, especially by drug users. Bogus solicitations for reverse mortgages or offers to take over house payments (= home stealing).
Door to door: Offering home inspection, installation or repairs, pest control (“working on your neighbor’s home, we noticed bugs in yours”); students selling overpriced or un-ordered subscriptions to “raise money for tuition.”
Personal: Using your church or social groups or other relationships to create or play on your trust for financial gain.
Conclusion: Any new or established form of communication can be an avenue for scammers to operate. Advances in technology have made it easier to cast a broader net.
Inducing fear or panic (IRS, kidnapping). Under anxiety behavior tends to stereotype and precludes our ability to think rationally or find creative alternatives; the brain’s amygdala (emotion) dominates the frontal cortex. We all have blind spots and triggers that create psychological vulnerability. Predators and scammers are adept at identifying their best prospects and knowing what approach will be most convincing; that’s their business.
Flattery, soft-soaping: “We wish all our customers were like you:” Aligning or identifying with you (as a military vet); taking a personal interest in you = At hand, affable and able.
Pseudocredibility/Reassurance: We’re Diamond Certified and on Angie’s List; We’re A+ with the BBB; Come-ons: We won’t charge you for the diagnostic work; We drug-test all our employees; We have the perfect solution to your “problem.”
Bait and Switch: You need a more costly product or service; We’ve found additional work that needs to be done on this repair (now that it’s underway). Can apply to unnecessary/risky proposed medical or dental procedures.
Wearing you down with pressure tactics. Since mental alertness peaks midmorning and tapers off after 2:00 pm, scammers often contact you late in the day. Isolating you at the airport; double-teaming the mark.
Orchestrating a series of “yes” answers to build momentum and then sell you extras you don’t need after wearing you down. (What are the statistics in extended warranties?)
Plausible rationalizations about what’s wrong with your computer, car, home AC, etc., after sizing up your lack of knowledge.
Offering a “great deal”/time-limited promotion too good to pass up (for financial gain, home maintenance, medical equipment or services)
Financial persuasion tactics include: enticing you with the prospect of wealth plus a limited supply or scarcity, claiming special credentials or experience, as part of a reputable firm or special group, offering small favors to obligate you, claiming social consensus via people you know and/or respect.
Psychological Factors: If this offer is the “answer to your problems or prayers?” think twice. Under the right circumstances anyone is vulnerable, regardless of age/ gender/ IQ/ education/ socioeconomic status/ position/ or financial experience, especially if there’s a crying need (real or bogus) and a credible rationalization.
Women want to do the right thing for peace of mind or to do what’s expected of us. Seniors (and people of faith) can be too cooperative, loyal or trusting. We may see ourselves as responsible, intelligent and competent, “knowing the score” but can fear we don’t know enough re technology, etc. Often we want to comply, to feel needed or important, to belong, especially if friends, peers, or others we respect are involved. (See The Confidence Code)
Scammers play on how women are socialized and can detect how you want to think of yourself, in order to offer validation and reassurance. Seniors can be counted on to respond to appeals to aid for veterans, needy/sick children/animals, recent disaster victims, etc.
Who are the perpetrators?
- Commercial enterprises that misrepresent what they’re offering or upsell goods (Mae’s roadtrip tires) or services you don’t need (extended warranties); who bill you for home or auto repairs that are promised but not done or done in a substandard, shoddy way, who slip in hidden fees (as in paying bills by telephone vs. check).
- Fly-by-night operations (IRS scares) that continually change their (disposable and dedicated) cell phone numbers and so are difficult to track down.
- Cons who rely on rely on financial or “sweetheart scams” to make a living (the online beau who disappeared after taking the widow’s money.) Grandparent scams often operate out of Canada with numbers that are easily disguised or are difficult to track. They’ve done their homework on your family via FB, etc., and pose as police officers, attorneys, and hospital aides.
- Opportunists (at the airport or the car repair shop)
- “Entrepreneurs” offering special services (door-to-door, etc.); Some scammers have a natural talent to manipulate (Frank Abagnale in “Catch me if you can”) or view it as a game to con the mark.
- Sociopaths and psychopaths believe their own lies and lack a conscience so they come across as sincere in person with no “tells.” The scam artist is often charming and personable, attractive and well-groomed. He or she knows how to appear knowledgeable, successful, and credible. Cons ask questions to build rapport and to customize their pitch. The “con” stands for the “confidence” they inspire. When confronted they claim, “I got my own mother into this investment; I didn’t know,” to neutralize their accusers/friends.
- “Stealth scammers” research unoccupied (or occupied) properties at the City Hall; then use property transfer forms from Staples, etc., to forge the seller’s signature before filing this paperwork with the city/county recorder’s office. (investigated by DA Kamala Harris in SF). Some create fake IDs to steal the real homeowner’s identity. Hijacked homes can be sold for a fraction of their worth or used as collateral to obtain new loans. Lenders favor homeowners with no existing mortgages and many seniors have paid off their mortgages.
Others use special software to collect personal details from LinkedIn and other social networking sites. Or send malware-infected links in e-mails ostensibly from Facebook friends. By clicking on the link, every keystroke is sent to the crook, including online accounts where you enter your name and password.
Scammers can present as personable young men or women who want to help, who appear innocuous and trustworthy (with a nice voice by telephone). Some scammers have an “official” badge/ID or (rented) uniform, etc., to enhance their credibility.
Others try to get you to feel sorry for them to give them yardwork or donate to a bogus cause or charity (at the grocery store) that you can’t take time to check out. Scam artists are sophisticated sales psychologists and many people are in the business of persuasion or of selling something tangible (miracle weight loss products) or intangible (psychotherapy, spiritual healing) legitimate or not. We need to scrutinize what’s behind these efforts to persuade.
Psychological research shows that we make up our minds within 3 – 5 minutes on whether we like the other based primarily on nonverbal cues, including clothing and facial expression. Scam artists are good actors and know how to appear sincere (using mirroring, etc.). Neurological changes with age can cloud our ability to recognize facial expressions that signal deceit. Newer scams can be ingenious and creative, thereby harder to evaluate; and there’s a scam hatched every second, a plethora online per AARP.
Motivations: Scammers seek an entitled lifestyle as of luxury and status or to fund a drug habit. Some are gratifying power or ego needs and/or are naturally good at manipulation. They do their best to build their credibility, play to your vulnerability and prey on your trust, naivete and blind spots as well as on existing anxiety and fears. Con artists fine-tune their methods in times of crisis (financial, hurricanes) knowing that victims are feeling increasingly desperate; they use every ploy or trick in the book.
How can you protect yourself? Deception is an omnipresent part of life and we can fail to recognize the obvious or spot the red flags; but forewarned is forearmed. You can increase your awareness and decrease your exposure and your vulnerability via these approaches designed to “tase” your adversary.
- Take time to evaluate the offer rationally. (I need to think it over, talk to my spouse/ partner, brother, son, brother-in-law, attorney, financial advisor, etc., first. Google or otherwise check out persons offering the good deal. Be skeptical and get an objective evaluation on the proposal from a disinterested and knowledgeable party.
- Identify and monitor your emotions. Avoid making decisions based on fear, anxiety/ panic or other strong emotions, especially in high pressure situations; Chill/ breathe. With emotional highs and enthusiasm ask yourself what’s the downside of the situation in cost, commitment, etc., and what’s your gut/intuitive feeling?
- Identify your needs, hopes and fears in the matter. “Sweetheart” scams play on the yearning for a life partner/intimate connection.
- Get away from the pressure (in the ladies’ restroom at the airport); claim a migraine.
- Read and research (online, etc.) to become knowledgeable. The AARP Bulletin (e.g., re SmartPhones), the EastBay Times and Rossmoor News run exposes on scams. The IRS does not contact via telephone nor Microsoft by computer.
- Get referrals of reputable providers from friends and neighbors, news sources (Diamond Certified businesses, Best of the East Bay readers’choice awards) or online (BBB, Home Advisor, Angie’s List); not foolproof, however (Paradise Ranch Estates).
- Share your information and experiences. Don’t be deterred by shame or chagrin; we’re all vulnerable at some time to a scam or con artist. Vulnerability is our human condition per Buddhism.
- Don’t send money to persons you only know online or donate to persons/charities you don’t know well, no matter how strong the appeal. Check out the charity/requestor. Call or do a brief online search to verify claims to be the attorney/firm, police station/ hospital/sheriff’s office. Call a family member to get an update on your grandchild before wiring money that can’t be reclaimed.
- The FTC/ Federal Trade Commission allows you three business days (72 hours, including Saturdays) to cancel a contract over $25 without explanation; you can stop payment on your (deposit) check as well.
- Be skeptical about unsolicited offers of services by telephone, US mail or e-mail. Offers of free/low cost medical supplies aim to extract personal information (SSNs) from Medicare members. Computer hackers are ever bolder and more sophisticated; the Internet offers a much broader scope for a low investment of energy.
- To prevent identity theft, use a lock on your home mailbox and deposit mail in the USPS mailboxes/slots close to collection times; use a confetti shredder for paperwork with your name, DOB, SSN, address; use online banking vs. mailed statements; change your passwords or use a password manager; download HTTPS Everywhere to encrypt Internet communications; use a gel pen on checks.
- Obtain/ monitor your free credit report; use www.lifelock.com to check credit; freeze credit so no one else can open an account; use a VPN service with free Wi-Fi; monitor all financial statements; use a password with upper and lower case letters plus numbers and symbols, and an unusual pin (no DOB).
- Don’t let strangers into your home especially in pairs; one can distract you while the other steals, as in purse snatching. Keep tabs on neighbors’ homes when they’re away and ask that they do the same for you.
- Don’t set your residence as “Home” on your GPS (accessible by parking attendants who can download keyless entry systems to smartphones) or keep auto registration, debit card, etc., receipts in your glove box; dispose of address labels so as to foil dumpster divers.
- When registering on a website or purchasing online, set up another (free) e-mail account for purchase confirmations or registration numbers.
- To foil home stealing, check all property records with your local deed recorder or register’s office to ensure that all documents and signatures are legitimate. Check the issuer on any new payment book or other notices on loans you haven’t initiated.
- Stay informed via local resources, e.g., Nextdoor.com, friends and family, and local news sources.
Senor Scam Resources: K.R. Ludwigsen, PhD.
“Frauds, Scams, Rip-Offs,” AARP.org/bulletin, April 2017, pp. 14-16. Scam Alert: An AARP Guide, July 2017, ISBN: 978-0-9971287-1-0 Sid Kirchheimer, Scam-Proof Your Life, AARP Books/Sterling; Contact at email@example.com Fraud Fighter hotline: 800/ 646-2283 or 877/908-3360; Protecting Yourself Online for Dummies; www.aarp.org/fraudwatchnetwork
Protect Yourself from Fraud. California Department of Business Oversight. For copies call 1-866-275-2677 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
To file complaints on brokers, investment advisors and financial institutions, call 866/275-2677 or download forms from www.dbo.ca.gov
California Dept. of Consumer Affairs for complaints: 800/952-5210, www.dca.ca.gov
US Postal Inspection Service 1-877/ 876-2455 to report phishing ploys, mail fraud, theft resulting in financial losses, and scams. In Oakland, Inspector Albert Rodriguez, Fax: 510/622-7413 for documents (forged checks, etc.) supporting reported financial crimes.
Federal Bureau of Investigation: www.fbi.gov
Deter-Detect-Defend Avoid ID Theft. www.ftc.gov/idtheft, 1-877-438-4338 (1-877-ID THEFT)
Charity scams: www.charitynavigator.com.
For black market use of your SSN and any three credit cards www.TrustedID.com/idsafe/identity-protection
Bank of America: email@example.com
Medical Board complaints: 800/633-2322, www.mbc.ca.gov
MediCal abuse: 800/722-0432, www.ag.ca.gov Medicare: 800/633-4227 (TTY: 877/486-2048)
HMO complaints: 888/466-2219, www.dmhc.ca.gov
Veterans Affairs complaints re providers: 800/ 736-7401, www.dir.ca.gov/dwc
Adult Protective Services re fiduciary or physical abuse by a caretaker, relative, neighbor, friend. (Elder abuse is “notoriously under-reported” since the senior is in a dependency relationship to the abuser; In immediate need call 911 or the police); In Contra Costa call 1-877/ 839-4347 via landline, or 925/ 602-4177. In California call 800/722-0432, www.ag.ca.gov Attorneys are available via The Family Justice Center in Concord (521-6366) in Todos Santos Plaza (Susan Kim).
Senior Scam Artists: In “Lafayette man pleads guilty to fake lawsuits duping homeowners,” Eastbay Times, Local News, Friday, July 21, 2017 (Rick Hurd, firstname.lastname@example.org), Robert Jacobsen, 69, created an elaborate scheme to rip off homeowners and mortgage holders by orchestrating fake lawsuits through a phony company, American Brokers Conduit Corporation. A federal grand jury indicted Jacobsen on 13 counts of wire fraud and nine counts of money laundering.
In Southern California two women in their early 70s hired a homeless man recruited from a church providing lunch to the homeless. When he’d worked for them a year or so, they took out a life insurance policy on him for one million dollars. Sometime later, after celebrating his “work anniversary” with a dinner, they slipped him a mickey, took him out in an alley and ran over him with their car in an apparent hit-and-run accident. This happened twice before they were caught by the police; in the interim they’d offered a job to a third man who backed out of the deal.