Scammers, schemers target the elderly

Dottie Drennan got the call on a warm spring day while home relaxing. A computer-generated voice told the 84-year-old Westchester widow that new Medicare cards were being sent in the mail and her personal information needed to be confirmed.

“That was my first clue that something wasn’t right,” said Drennan, who continued to listen “out of curiosity.”

The deep voice on the other end checked her name and address. Then it asked for the name and the number of the bank account where her Social Security check was deposited every month.

“At that point I hung up. I’m not stupid. I knew it was a scam.”

Upset, Drennan reported the strange call, becoming one of the many seniors targeted by schemers and scammers not to fall for the ploy. In fact, both federal and state agencies issued press release warnings about this new identity theft ploy, the latest in a growing list of swindles and cons. From investment fraud to telephone scams and cheating caregivers, ripoffs keep senior advocates and law enforcement busy.

“Every time I turn around there’s a new scam,” says Alina Becker, elder abuse prevention awareness coordinator for the Alliance for Aging. “For every one we discover there are dozens more. These people just come up with different ways to cheat. They’re very creative.”

Older adults are an attractive group for con artists, Becker adds. Those 65 and older are the country’s fastest growing demographic, and Florida tops all states in the percentage of seniors 60 and over, with 4.5 million residents or almost a quarter of the population. That figure is expected to more than double to 9.7 million by 2030.

“With so many older adults living in your state, Florida is like a laboratory for all kinds of scams,” says Sandra Timmerman, director of the MetLife Mature Market Institute. “It’s a fertile market.”

Senior scams are crimes of opportunity. Older adults tend to have retirement savings readily accessible. They’re home more often and easy to reach. Many are socially isolated, vulnerable because of loneliness or depression. They also tend to be more trusting, having lived in a society where private information was truly private and not so readily available on the Internet.

Comprehensive statistics on elder exploitation tend to be sketchy. Authorities who keep these statistics, such as Miami-Dade police, have several units dealing with different kinds of economic crimes. What’s more, the cases aren’t always filed by the age of victims.

But some groups have tried to keep track of the problem. For example, a 2010 survey by the Investor Protection Trust, a nonprofit education organization, found that one of every five Americans over 65 — or an estimated 7.5 million seniors — had been a victim of some financial fraud. Another study by the MetLife Mature Market Institute, using mostly news articles and scholarly literature, estimated that the annual financial loss by victims totaled $2.9 billion dollars in 2010, a 12 percent increase from the $2.6 billion estimated in 2008.

In Florida, the Department of Children and Families tallies only the number of elderly financial abuse crimes committed by a person known to the senior — a relative or caregiver, for instance. In 2005, 7,395 cases had been reported to authorities. By 2012, the total had dropped to 6,026. (DCF does not keep track of mortgage scams, telephone swindles or other such schemes.)

Experts agree, however, that incidents are underreported, whether the crime is committed by a relative or a stranger. In fact, both advocates and law enforcement officials estimate that for every one case reported as few as 14 and as many as 25 incidents are never made public.

Why do seniors keep quiet about their victimization? “They’re embarrassed,” says Edith Lederberg, executive director of the Aging and Disability Resource Center of Broward Center. “They’re afraid that relatives might think they can’t handle their finances.”

Women were almost twice as likely to be victims of financial abuse, in part because many live alone and require help with either health care or home maintenance, according to the MetLife report.

About 60 percent of the cases Florida International University’s Investor Advocacy Clinic sees are filed by older investors, says Robert “Bert” Savage, the clinic director and visiting clinical assistant professor at the College of Law.

Many victims are widows left to deal with finances for the first time. They face myriad problems, from buying services and products they don’t need to unscrupulous brokers selling them high-fee risky stocks.

“Some of these stories are heartbreaking,” Savage says. “It’s not like they have the time to make up the money they’ve lost.”

Often, it’s a family member or close friend conning the senior. The MetLife study found that 34 percent of the financial abuse crimes were committed by family, friends or neighbors. The IPT study reports it to be much higher — 79 percent of the exploitation incidents involve theft or diversion of funds or property by family members.

Judging from the calls her office gets, Lederberg puts it at 90 percent. “We hear about it all the time,” she says. “’The relative will tell himself, ‘I have bills to pay and don’t have the money. I’ll just borrow temporarily and pay it back.’ ”

They justify dipping into the senior’s assets by rationalizing that it’s an advance on their inheritance or, perhaps, a form of payment for the work they do around the house or as caregivers.

Abuse has flourished because of a lack of awareness, senior advocates say. Sometimes witnesses assume that the senior voluntarily signed over the property or gave away her money. They dismiss it as a domestic issue, a misunderstanding between family members or friends.

“We are 30 years behind the times, where we were decades ago with child abuse,” laments Becker from the Alliance for Aging. “We’re just now catching up with the reality that we can’t leave this to be settled between the victim and the perpetrator. It’s a community problem.”

In the last couple of years, authorities have stepped up efforts to raise awareness. As part of the 2010 Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, the Obama administration established the Office of Financial Protection for Older Americans in the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Last fall it launched the Elder Justice Coordinating Council, made up of representatives from several federal departments and agencies. In its inaugural meeting experts presented testimony on elder abuse, neglect and exploitation. And just last month Florida Sen. Bill Nelson won a commitment from the Jamaican government to extradite any of its citizens indicted on charges of a popular Jamaican Lotto scam that targets the elderly.

On a grassroots level, area agencies on aging visit assisted living facilities, nursing homes, daycare centers — any place that will help spread the word on prevention.

One recent weekday afternoon, Alina Becker was teaching an in-service program to her co-workers in the Alliance for Aging offices in West Miami-Dade. Behind her, on a dry eraser board, she had listed the signs of financial exploitation. The audience buzzed with potential financial crimes they had encountered during the course of their jobs. They detailed the reluctance by the elderly to pursue the matter.

“This kind of abuse,” Becker says, “is very slick. “This doesn’t leave a mark or a cut. The seniors are not screamed at or called names. Instead they are sweet-talked into doing this because they’re lonely or isolated or trusting and they just want to be helpful. It’s really very sad.”