Unfortunately, getting old means fighting off the scammers

May 29, 2019 11:15 pm

Stock photo via Getty Images.

It’s easy to think we’d never get taken for a chump the way septuagenarian Judy Fern was — to the tune of nearly $200,000.

Phone scammers convinced the woman in November 2017 to turn over access to her computer. Then, these so-called “tech support experts” persuaded Fern she needed to buy dozens of scratch-off gift cards to fix illusory shortages in her bank account.    

But if you’re elderly or even middle-age, or have relatives who are senior citizens, a recent National Public Radio series could leave you in shock. And then make you incensed.

I urge you to listen to a Marketplace Morning Report segment under the “Brains and Losses” header. It’s titled “Age of Fraud: Are seniors more vulnerable to financial scams?” The answer is yes — and not just seniors who suffer from cognitive problems, including dementia.

The series should have special resonance for elderly Virginians. Sadly, we’re among the biggest dupes in the country.

An April 17 study at the website, which says the vast majority of elder fraud cases go unreported, lists the commonwealth as having the fifth-highest rate of elder fraud nationwide. “More than one in five Virginia seniors fell victim to elder fraud in the past year,” the study said, estimating that $1 billion was stolen in roughly 265,000 cases.

The Marketplace report, meanwhile, interviewed scam victims, physicians, researchers and financial officials. It cited several reasons why seniors are targeted by crooks:

They’ve got the most money. People 50 and older have 83 percent of the wealth in America, according to a 2016 study by AARP. Households headed by folks in their 70s and 80s tend to have the highest median net worth. 

Yet they also show “age-associated financial vulnerability.” The NPR report said “our ability to detect sketchy situations may decline. Or, we may become prone to seeing the upside of a risky deal and blow off the downside.”

Then there are societal factors. The older we get, it’s more likely spouses and close relatives have died. We tend to live alone. We might become more isolated. Without another set of eyes and ears in the household, our BS detectors lose some oomph.

I’m reminded of a Newport News café owner I interviewed in 2014 who almost became a victim. A caller, claiming to be from a state utility, convinced the 86-year-old woman her electricity would be shut off unless she paid her bill immediately by purchasing prepaid debit cards – even though she knew she had paid on time.

She headed out — a decision that, as she told me the story, left me flabbergasted. Fortunately, a good Samaritan in line with her at the drugstore convinced her the tale sounded fishy. He dialed the utility to double-check her account, saving her from losing nearly a thousand bucks.

I felt depressed — and enraged — listening to Marketplace’s rundown of woes: The elderly guy duped by a young woman on the street for cash for cancer treatment. He lost more than $90,000. The woman who sent $100,000 to a person she thought was a love interest. But whenever a face-to-face meeting was scheduled, it always got postponed.

Authorities arrest some of the con artists, but the investigations take time. Many thieves operate overseas, so it’s harder to nab them.

But I found a few victories in Virginia in newspaper accounts that should buoy our spirits.

Earlier this year, a Powhatan County grand jury indicted Frederick Shmidt, 81, on four felony counts of obtaining money by false pretenses in 2018. The Powhatan man is suspected of being a part of a telemarketing sweepstakes scheme. Court records said the scam convinced an 86-year-old woman she had won millions of dollars and a 2017 Mercedes GL if she paid the taxes and fees in advance.

In 2018, Tessicar Jumpp, 34, from Jamaica, was the last defendant in a federal court case in Alexandria. Jumpp and other relatives were convicted of scamming senior citizens of $750,000. After being extradited, Jumpp was sentenced to six years in prison. (The case was prosecuted in Northern Virginia because at least one of the 10 confirmed victims lived there.)

Is this what it’s like to get old in America, to be bombarded by phone and online crooks constantly? The answer is yes. And usually, gullible victims don’t recoup their losses.

So what can you do? Charlotte Gomer is a spokeswoman for the state Office of the Attorney General. She told me the office coordinates the state’s Triad Program, which helps seniors recognize potential scams. Among the tips:

  • If something seems too good to be true it probably is — advice as old as time.
  • Never send money up front, especially cash or a pre-paid card that can be nearly impossible to recoup. “No legitimate offer would require you pay money up front to get a bunch of money on the back end,” she said by email.
  • If you receive a solicitation, whether online, in person, or over the phone, wait 24 hours before acting. “During that time, reach out to a relative, a friend, law enforcement, call the company directly or even call your Triad community outreach coordinator or the OAG Consumer Protection folks to see if it’s a known scam,” Gomer added.

What if you become a victim? Tell police and other officials.

“Sometimes older folks can be embarrassed to admit that they have been taken advantage of,” she said, “but it is so important to (report it) so that other folks do not fall victim to the same scammers.”

Too many seniors already have pitiful, costly tales about their own losses. Don’t join them.


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Roger Chesley
Roger Chesley

Longtime columnist and editorial writer Roger Chesley worked at the (Newport News) Daily Press and The (Norfolk) Virginian-Pilot from 1997 through 2018. He previously worked at newspapers in Cherry Hill, N.J., and Detroit. Reach him at [email protected]