Experts advise elders on avoiding financial fraud

David Briggs
ELDER FRAUD: A panel spoke to seniors at the Dance Palace last Thursday, enumerating the dangers of scammers posing as I.R.S. agents, art dealers and, lately, people just like you.   

One day, a man in Marin got a phone call that he had won $5 million in a sweepstakes contest. He could get all the money—once he paid about $2,000 in “taxes.” He followed the payment instructions. 

A few days later, the man got a phone call from someone else telling him the first caller had been a fraudster—but that this new person was really from the sweepstakes, and the $5 million would come if only he paid $19,000, which he did. If it sounds like a scam, it was. 

Marin is particularly enticing for scammers because of its large and often vulnerable elderly population—it has the highest percentage of people over 85 among California counties—combined with high incomes. 

Last Thursday, three experts—Jeffrey Petterson, a fraud officer with Bank of Marin; Mandy Smith, a county social worker who covers West Marin; and Kristina Warcholski, a mediator with the district attorney’s office—sat on the panel at the Dance Palace to talk to 20 or so seniors about trends in financial fraud. The event was co-hosted by West Marin Senior Services and Legal Aid of Marin. 

Scammers use a wide variety of tactics to try to entice victims: fraudulent sweepstakes notices in the mail; calls from people pretending to be from the I.R.S., law enforcement, a bank or “the U.S. federal treasury”; people on the street pretending to be I.R.S. agents, art dealers or financial experts; and email or social media messages, in particular from a “grandchild” who got in trouble abroad and needs money right away. 

One woman attending the event, an artist, said she received a call from someone who wanted to buy a painting—but only if she would send money first. An artist friend of hers also got the call.  “I didn’t buy into [it],” she said, “but it’s just so wounding to deal with it.” 

Ms. Smith, the social worker, said one new scam to look out for is called the “affinity scam,” which is when “someone like you scams you.” She recounted one story: two ladies were approached on the street by a woman who was dressed well, spoke their language and needed a ride. Pretending to be a financial adviser who had made clients rich, she bilked them out of $10,000. 

Scamming is a lucrative business. Worldwide, fraudsters net about $3 billion a year from elders, Mr. Petterson said. Elders are particularly vulnerable because they may suffer from early dementia and memory loss, Ms. Smith said. “If you lose your skepticism, you might just fall for that call.” 

Loneliness can also play a part. Ms. Smith said one victim who had recently lost her husband and considered herself unlucky in life gave $2,500 in “fees and taxes” to a group of scammers who told her she had won $850,000 and a Mercedes-Benz. They would call her every day for an hour, eking out more money each time. Once they had enough, the calls stopped coming. She could no longer pay her rent, but she told Ms. Smith, “It was so nice to have a friendly voice.” 

Scammers aren’t always strangers, either. Family, friends and even caregivers also target elders for money. Yet successful prosecutions are rare. Elders often don’t want friends, particularly caregivers they rely on, to go to jail, and anonymous scammers who use burner phones can be almost impossible to find. For some, admitting that they’ve been duped is embarrassing or difficult to admit. 

And recouping losses is highly unlikely. “It’s virtually impossible to get [the money] back,” Mr. Petterson said. 

The best thing is to prevent yourself from becoming a victim. Shred important documents like financial forms and medical bills, which contain information that someone can use to steal your identity; order a credit report annually to see if your score has changed for unknown reasons; don’t open emails or attachments from strangers, which could contain viruses that scan the computer for personal information; never give your social security number over the phone, unless you initiate the call; and monitor bank accounts for suspicious activity. 

And if someone calls you claiming to be from the I.R.S., just hang up. The agency will not call you. “The I.R.S. will contact you by mail,” Mr. Petterson said.