The elderly are targets. My family learned too late how to fight scams.

My septuagenarian mother-in-law was taken for $25,000. Here’s how to protect your relatives from this epidemic of fraud exploiting the trust of older citizens.

By Lizette Alvarez ●  Read more »

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

The cash was intended to bail out her beloved nephew from jail, where he sat after crashing into a pregnant woman and killing her. Or so my mother-in-law was told by the man on the phone who pretended to be her nephew’s lawyer. The man instructed her to tell no one or he would rot in jail. On two consecutive days, she made large cash withdrawals at her bank and the “lawyer” sent the Lyft driver to collect the loot.

But there was no accident and no jail stint. My mother-in-law, reacting with her heart and not her head, was too scared to call her nephew or other family members to verify the tale. Days later, she mentioned to my husband that she had bailed the nephew out of jail — with no idea that she had been scammed.

That was my family’s introduction to the pernicious crimes that strip senior citizens of their money and dignity. It also served as a wake-up call for my husband. He drafted a strategy to better protect her, which included overseeing her finances.

Scams have skyrocketed, according to the FBI and the Federal Trade Commission, fueled by a pandemic that further isolated senior citizens. As seniors tried to navigate the virtual world to keep in touch with loved ones or shop, they became even more vulnerable to fraud. The pandemic has subsided, but the threat has not.

Florida is an obvious target — second in elder fraud victim rankings behind California, according to the FBI. The state’s elderly population, much of it well-off, continues to boom.

Nationally, the FTC says, losses through fraud jumped more than 70 percent from 2020. People over 60 were defrauded of nearly $1.7 billion in 2021, a mind-boggling increase of 74 percent from 2020, according to the FBI. And those over 80 were the softest targets, losing the most money.

The range of schemes is breathtaking: There is the “romance” con where the victim is courted online and agrees to send the person money for necessities and future “together” plans. The “impersonation” scam, like the one that bilked my mother-in-law. Impersonators also pretend to be Medicare, IRS or other government employees demanding payments. Online “tech support” assistance allows fraudsters to gain access to computers and wreak havoc, a category that has surged.

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Then there’s the “sweepstakes” scam. Three months ago, a friend’s mother in Florida received a check for $100,000 and congratulations on winning the contest. The only catch: To cash the check, she needed to send $40,000 to pay the taxes. She wire-transferred the money, and whoosh it was gone. The check, of course, was fake.

The soaring number of hoaxes, many of them run by international rings, have forced investigators to do more. Last October, the Justice Department expanded the Transnational Elder Fraud Strike Force, increasing its U.S. attorney offices to 20. President Biden last year signed into law the Seniors Fraud Prevention Act, a special advisory office under the FTC to try to rein in the epidemic.

Locally, state lawmakers and law enforcement are stepping up their efforts. Florida tightened guardianship laws to curb fraud committed by family or supposed friends.

But with such an explosion in cases, more needs to be done. “I can’t tell you the last time I had a vacation,” Andrew van Sickle, a state prosecutor in Sarasota who handles many of these crimes, told me.

To succeed at his job, van Sickle says he must react swiftly or the trail goes cold and the money — in the form of wire transfers, gift cards, checks, etc. — vanishes. Criminals’ rising use of hard-to-track cryptocurrency has made his job even harder.

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But some fixes would be simple, van Sickle said, such as allowing him to chase the money if it crosses county lines. (My mother-in-law’s cash was delivered to the crook 90 miles away in another county, police told my husband.) “It wouldn’t cost the legislature a dime,” he said.

The number of bilked senior citizens is undoubtedly higher because they are less likely to report they were conned. Often, they fear it might lead to restrictions on their independence if loved ones find out. For some, the financial losses can be catastrophic.

What to do? Counsel your older relatives, describing specifically the ways that scammers might approach. Tell them not to divulge personal information to strangers who contact them online or on the phone, even when they appear to already know personal family details — these can often be gleaned from social media.

Emphasize to them to always check with you before sending money to anyone. And, if necessary, obtain power of attorney and keep an eye on their finances.

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

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