NEW YORK (CNNfn) - A California man in his 70s paid $110,000 in cash for some poorly done home repairs barely worth a fifth that amount. An Iowa woman in her 80s lost tens of thousands of dollars pursuing prizes that telemarketers assured her she'd won.|
Countless senior citizens fall prey every day to the sweetheart swindle, caretaker con or a bogus scheme promising cash, cars, stocks or great deals on anything from magazines to home improvement.
And once someone realizes his or her savings are being siphoned, he or she becomes a prime target for the "recovery room" scam, in which a con artist offers to help victims get back some of the money they lost in an earlier fraud.
Statistics on the number of elderly victimized by financial crimes are hard to come by since only about one in 14 cases is reported, according to ElderAngels, a clearinghouse for incidences of elder abuse in the San Francisco area.
But AARP, a leading association for aging Americans, estimates that of the American consumers who lose more than $40 billion a year to telemarketing fraud alone, over half are 50 or older. And the National Association of Bunco Investigators, an association of law enforcement agents who pursue confidence swindlers, says the number of elderly who are victims of financial crimes is at least in the tens of thousands.
Who's at risk
Several factors make senior citizens top targets for financial abuse. Isolation is prime among them.
"They're home all the time," said Ann Flaherty, ElderAngels' executive director. "They're just so darned lonely, they want to get involved in something."
Often, they are happy to get attention from a stranger who feigns interest in their well-being or tries to befriend them.
"They're home all the time. They're just so darned lonely, they want to get involved in something."
-- Ann Flaherty, ElderAngels
"They appreciate the fact that someone's taking time to talk to them," said Bradley Skolnik, president of the North American Securities Administrators Association.
They also may be swindled by someone they already know and trust -- maybe a clergyman, a bookkeeper or a stock broker.
And their willingness to trust doesn't stop there.
A lot of seniors "come from a day and age where they believe what's in writing" and they believe what companies tell them, Flaherty said. She has very little luck persuading some people that they did not, in fact, just win $833,000 even though the piece of paper in their hands says they did.
To hell with politeness
Not that they would tell her just where she should take her crazy ideas, since that would be rude. And good manners are paramount to many older Americans, who were raised in a far more civil society than the one they inhabit today. Politeness, though, can cost them.
Experts who track elder abuse say one of the best things older people can do to protect themselves from a scam is just to hang up the phone or slam the door on a stranger asking for money.
But too often, that's easier said than done. Instead, a person ends up giving out her bank account or credit card number, mailing a check to a P.O. box to "prepay the taxes" on a prize not yet collected, or buying a promissory note or other investment that "guarantees" high annual returns.
Going in for the kill
Even after older people recognize they've been the victimized, they often resist taking action against the perpetrator.
Often, experts say, an elderly person is embarrassed to report the crime because it jeopardizes their sense of themselves as independent and in control.
"They're forced to rely on somebody else. That goes against the grain for so many people," said Jon Grow, executive director of the National Association of Bunco Investigators Inc.
"It's like any physical crime. You heal, but the trauma is there."
-- Jon Grow, National Association of Bunco Investigators Inc.
Or they may be frightened. Sometimes criminals return to their victims to get more money out of them. But instead of befriending them, they threaten them and prey on their fears.
Those threats may be imagined, especially if the criminal is physically imposing. But they feel real to the victim, which can be paralyzing.
"You lose a lot of your assertiveness and your confidence," Grow said. "It's like any physical crime. You heal, but the trauma is there."
Putting money-grubbers on notice
Recourse in cases of financial crimes can be difficult, because evidence can be sketchy and the victim's memory foggy. Plus, those who commit these crimes often operate out-of-state and are hard to prosecute.
But increasingly, state and national agents are making it harder for swindlers to do their jobs.
In December, President Clinton signed into law a bill mandating that sweepstakes mailings clearly and conspicuously disclose that no purchase is necessary to win a prize; the purchase of a product does not improve your chances of winning; and you are not automatically a winner. In addition, each mailing must tell you your odds of winning a prize and provide a toll-free number to call if you want to be taken off the mailing list.
Flaherty also noted that some states impose "criminal enhancements," which add two years to a sentence for any crime if it was committed against a senior citizen.
Fraudulent telemarketers also have been targeted. The Iowa attorney general's office helped spearhead a national undercover telephone sting in which elderly people who had lost money and were relentlessly pursued by other telemarketers as a result would let their phone lines be transferred to authorities, who in turn would tape conversations with the scam artists. (Listen in on one of those conversations, courtesy of AARP and Iowa's attorney general's office: 223K WAV.)
Bob Brammer, spokesman for the Iowa office, said as a result of the sting, authorities managed to shut down a number of "major boiler room operations" in his state.
Ripping the web of deceit
If you or someone you know is the victim of a financial crime, there are steps you can take to recover your money or at the very least alert authorities to the activities of a serial swindler in your area.
First, make a report to the police. Many police departments and district attorney's offices are creating elder abuse units, Flaherty said. You might also contact your county's adult protective services agency.
If you are involved in an investment scam, call your state securities regulator, Skolnik said. You also might contact the National Association of Securities Dealers at (800) 334-0668, or Securities Investor Protection Corp. at (202) 371-8300. But, remember, preventive measures are always best. Don't give money to strangers who call. You wouldn't take medical or legal advice over the phone, he said, so why take investment tips? Also, check with the state regulator to see if the sales person you're dealing with is properly registered or has a disciplinary record.
If you've been hurt by another consumer product scam, call your state attorney general's office, the state consumer protection office, the local prosecutor's office and the Better Business Bureau.
"Nobody should ever feel embarrassed if they've been victimized by a con artist," Skolnik said.