BLADE ILLUSTRATION/WES BOOHER
If you are a grandparent who gets a telephone call from someone identifying himself as your grandson, be wary even if he says he’s in trouble in a foreign country and needs you to send money right away.
He might tell you he doesn’t want you to tell his parents and the voice might sound familiar, but still ask yourself: Is it legitimate?
Local authorities say no matter how persuasive the caller, the first thing to do is hang up the phone. Do not send money. And verify the story with relatives. Anyone who is really in trouble won’t care if you check the story.
Too often the caller is a thief taking unsuspecting seniors for hundreds or thousands of dollars. It’s one of the most pervasive scams being used against seniors in Toledo and across the country.
“This is an enormous topic. There literally is no limit to what crooks can do to steal money or property from seniors,” said Dick Eppstein, president of the local Better Business Bureau. “The amount of money is just plain staggering. One of the reasons con artists love seniors is because they have money [and] are easily targeted.”
“This is such a complicated issue,” added Peter Kanios, prosecutor in the senior protection unit in the Lucas County Prosecutor’s Office.
Their generation trusts one another, which makes them easy targets, Mr. Kanios said. Other easy prey are elderly who are estranged from their families and whose pride keeps many of them from reporting that they’ve been tricked.
Not talking about it makes it hard for investigators, said Stacey Premo, program director of the long-term care ombudsman program at Advocates for Basic Legal Equality. Those cases make police “wonder whether [the crime is actually] theft,” she said.
When Mr. Eppstein talks to seniors, in every audience there is someone who has received a phone call from a “grandchild” claiming to be in trouble in another country and in immediate need of money.
“The callers are very convincing. The people who call sound like the grandchildren. We don’t know how they do it, and because of things like Facebook, they know all about your family. They stress ‘I need the money immediately and don’t tell mom and dad. I’m trusting you grandma, and send the money to this address.’ They may need $2,000 or $3,000. The [calls] literally come from anywhere in the world.”
Mr. Eppstein said one man made several trips to the bank to withdraw substantial amounts to wire to his “grandson.” Tellers warned, but he didn’t listen.
People are swindled out of five and six-figure amounts of money in another big scam. Mr. Eppstein said seniors are told they have won prizes, whether an “FBI” sweepstakes, a lottery, or other “winnings.” Those preyed upon are told they must first pay fees. Then they futilely wait for their prizes.
“The simple rule is: Never send money to claim a prize,” Mr. Eppstein said.
Sometimes con artists send victims a counterfeit “check” to cover fees.
“When the check bounces, consumers call us and say it’s the bank’s fault. But the bank didn’t know you gave them a fake check,” Mr. Eppstein said. “There are victims of these scams hourly.”
‘Who do you trust?’
So how do seniors citizens protect themselves and what can loved ones do? Closely examine all aspects of a senior’s life and close all gaps.
“A lot of it is educating the general public as to what resources are available,” said Ms. Premo. She also urges families to investigate agencies before hiring aides. “Quite often, the elderly might be ashamed or embarrassed if they have given some money [to someone and then] figure out they are being scammed and they don’t want to let their family and friends know.”
Mr. Kanios said scam artists look for six criteria in potential victims: whether they are vulnerable in any way; trusting; cognitively impaired; softies and polite; financially needy, and unlikely to report the crimes.
“Part of the problem is, who do you trust?” Mr. Kanios asked. “Give someone power of attorney to handle your affairs. Do you trust them? Is it possible they might scam you? With respect to elder abuse, 75 percent of the time it’s a family member and it’s an adult child who is doing the abusing, particularly in [tough] economic times if your kid is tempted to tap into that pool. A lot of it depends on the cognitive ability of the senior. If you have somebody who can say no and slam down the phone, there’s not much to do.”
Get caller ID and don’t answer the phone unless you know the caller, he said. As for prizes, he added, “If it’s too good to be true, it probably is. If someone calls asking for personal information, don’t give any. And don’t give your Social Security number to anybody.”
Scammers are crafty. Mr. Kanios cited a case in which an elderly man had been bilked out of thousands of dollars. The family changed his phone number to try to protect him, but he gave the thief the new number. The number was changed again, and the con artist had a pizza sent to the man’s home; he talked to the senior via the delivery man’s cell phone.
“When they went to that extreme the elderly man realized something was wrong,” Mr. Kanios said.
Thieves get seniors’ telephone numbers in many ways, and robo-dialing that targets seniors is one. Sometimes the elderly willingly give personal details or they might put it on a card to enter a contest.
“The place that is supplying the contest has your name, address, phone number, and what do they do with that? They sell it to a third party, and these phone lists are used by scammers,” he said.
Mr. Kanios condemns no one for trying to win contests, but said giving contact information can put it right into the wrong hands. That’s because people voluntarily give their information. And, he said swindlers compile compile “sucker lists,” that they share.
Just hang up
Mr. Eppstein has been at the BBB long enough to see scams come, go, and return. While he urges the public to support local school fund-raising campaigns, sometimes the sellers are students claiming to sell goods for schools and to keep out of trouble. But usually, the kids are being used.
“It’s sympathy appeals,” Mr. Eppstein said. “Kids selling chocolate bars for $5 say, ‘It will keep me out of gangs... I’m learning good skills...’ They are well-dressed and well-spoken, and they often use minority kids.”
These youngsters are transported outside their neighborhoods to other regions by someone who “drags them all over the country,” and feeds them fast food, he added. When they make a “sale,” the student “gives it to the van driver. You are not helping the kids at all.”
Another scam takes advantage of seniors on their computers.
“You are a senior citizen and have your own Facebook page. But your computer is not acting very good, and you get a call from ‘Microsoft’ and they say they have been monitoring your computer, and you think, ‘Wow. That’s neat,’ And [while] they talk to you they can get into your computer to send out spam and take your ID,” Mr. Eppstein said. “One guy said they got into his computer and stole $10,000 from his bank account.”
To be clear, he said Microsoft does not make such calls.
But if the scam artists say they are from that firm “and you ask if they said Microsoft, they will deny it,” Mr. Eppstein said. “So if you get a call saying they want to help you with their computer, just hang up.”
Contact Rose Russell at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6178.