We Learned Too Late How to Fight Scams Targeting the Elderly — $25,000 Too Late

We Learned Too Late How to Fight Scams Targeting the Elderly — $25,000 Too Late

My 78-year-old mother-in-law gave an envelope containing $25,000 in cash to a Florida Lyft driver who showed up on her doorstep one morning in the early days of the pandemic.

The cash was intended to bail his beloved nephew out of jail, where he was serving time after beating and killing a pregnant woman. Or so my mother-in-law was told on the phone by the man who pretended to be her nephew’s lawyer. The man ordered him not to tell anyone or he would rot in jail. Two days in a row, he withdrew large sums of cash to his bank and sent the elevator driver to collect the “lawyer” loot.

But there were no accidents and no jails. My mother-in-law, reacting with her heart and not her head, was afraid to even call her nephew or other family members to verify the story. A few days later, he mentioned to my husband that he had bailed the nephew out of jail – he had no idea he had cheated.

It was my family’s introduction to the pernicious crime that robs senior citizens of their money and dignity. It was a wake up call for my husband. He devised a strategy to better protect her, which included overseeing her finances.

According to the FBI and the Federal Trade Commission, scams have skyrocketed, fueled by an epidemic that has further alienated senior citizens. As seniors tried to navigate the virtual world to keep in touch with loved ones or the store, they became more vulnerable to fraud. The epidemic has subsided, but the threat has not.

Florida is an obvious target — second only to California in the ranking of major fraud victims, according to the FBI. The state’s aging population, much of it affluent, continues to grow.

Nationally, the FTC says, fraud losses have increased by more than 70% since 2020. People over the age of 60 were defrauded of nearly $1.7 billion in 2021, up 74% from 2020, according to the FBI. And the over-80s were the softest targets for losing the most money.

The range of schemes is breathtaking: There’s a “romance” con where the victim is wooed online and agrees to send the person money for necessities and future “together” plans. “Impersonation” scams, like the one that crippled my mother-in-law. Imposters also claim payments by pretending to be Medicare, IRS or other government employees. Online “tech support” help allows fraudsters to gain access to computers and wreak havoc, a category that has grown.

Romance scams cost consumers a record $304 million as more people looked for love online during the pandemic.

Then there are the “sweepstakes” scams. Three months ago, a friend’s mother in Florida received a check for $100,000 and congratulations for winning the contest. The only catch: To cash the check, he had to send $40,000 to pay taxes. He wire-transferred the money and — whoosh — left. The check, of course, was fake.

Last October, the Justice Department expanded the Transnational Elder Fraud Strike Force, increasing the number of its U.S. Attorney’s Offices to 20. President Biden signed into law last year an Office of Special Counsel under the FTC to rein in the epidemic.

Locally, state lawmakers and law enforcement are stepping up their efforts. Florida has tightened guardianship laws to prevent cheating by family or alleged friends.

Some corrections would be easy, Andrew Van Sickle, a state prosecutor in Sarasota who handles many such crimes, told me, Like allowing him to chase the money if it crosses county lines. (My mother-in-law’s cash was delivered to Crook, 90 miles away in another county, the police told my husband.) “It won’t cost the Legislature a dime,” he said.

The number of billed senior citizens is undoubtedly higher because they are less likely to complain that they have been defrauded. Often, they fear that this may lead to restrictions on their freedom if loved ones find out. For some, the financial loss can be catastrophic.

what do you do Advise your elderly relatives, specifically describing who scammers may contact. Tell them not to share personal information with strangers who contact them online or over the phone, even when they seem to already know personal family details — these can often be gleaned from social media.

Always insist that they check with you before sending money to someone. And, if necessary, obtain power of attorney and keep track of their finances.

If you have questions or want to report a scam, call the National Elder Fraud Hotline: 1-833-372-8311.

Lizette Alvarez is a Washington Post contributing columnist on issues related to Florida, immigration and politics.


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