In a sweeping indictment handed down late last month, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that his office has charged more than 250 people for bilking as much as $500 million from elderly Americans.
Reportedly, it’s the largest elder fraud sweep in U.S. history, with more than 1 million victims around the world, including Vancouver and British Columbia where authorities raided criminal organizations whose victims included Americans.
The scams run the gamut, offering bogus prizes from lottery winnings to trips around the world. Sessions said tactics also included bullying.
“Criminals prey on some of the most vulnerable Americans to steal their hard-earned savings and their peace of mind,” Sessions said. “And the threat is only growing.”
In the District, those who care for the elderly have remained keenly aware of various plots to exploit senior citizens. One prominent scam includes those involving homeowners who face foreclosure.
“One scam we see involves a scam artist who suggests that the homeowner transfer ownership of her home to him or a third party,” said Erik Goodman, a staff attorney at Legal Counsel for the Elderly, a northwest D.C.-based firm that provides free legal services to low-income District residents 60 and older.
In that particular scam, the perpetrator says he will help the homeowner avoid the foreclosure via the transfer of ownership. The scam artist also promises that the homeowner will get the home back.
“But the scam artist then either tries to keep the home for himself or obtains a loan against the home, strips equity from it, and then abandons it,” Goodman said. “And sometimes the scam artist strips equity from the home via new mortgage and ties to keep it.”
Goodman also noted that, while not necessarily a scam, seniors are often subjected to high-pressure sales tactics. For example, auto dealers will suggest to a young person that he could qualify for an auto loan if his mother or grandmother would co-sign for the loan, he said.
“The auto dealer then has a salesperson drive to the mother or grandmother’s home and pressure her into co-signing for the auto loan,” Goodman said.
The examples, however, are plentiful.
When a scammer called Dorothy Lambing of Louisiana, claiming she had won a prize worth thousands of dollars, Lambing and her husband were desperate and battling cancer. All she had to do was purchase a six-month supply of vitamins, according to a CBS News report.
“I felt like the bottom had dropped out. You know, all the hope we had was gone,” Lambing told CBS News. “I checked with the Better Business Bureau and he was not listed with any complaints and so I said, ‘well, OK, it might be something true.'”
She gave the scammer $2,500.
The Justice Department said fraudsters reach out with calls, emails or regular mail promising cash, valuable prizes or good fortune if the recipient sends back a payment for processing fees.
According to the department, scams targeting senior citizens are increasing dramatically. An estimated $3 billion is stolen from seniors each year.
A scheme by one network of scammers mailed more than 950,000 fraudulent solicitations to people in 38 states, according to court records. One promised a prize of $3.3 million. It reads, “A day you may remember for the rest of your life…tell nobody.”
Since 2011, victims have sent them approximately $10 million.
Goodman said there are ways that seniors and caretakers can protect themselves.
“Read everything you sign carefully,” Goodman said. “Take your time reading the contracts and walk away if someone is trying to pressure you into signing without taking time to consider the contract.”
Individuals should always take note of how much time they have, if any, to cancel a contract.
“Ask for a second opinion when it comes to something like the need for an auto repair or a home repair,” Goodman said. “Make sure a home repair contractor is licensed. Never agree to anything that seems too good to be true.”
It should be noted also that there’s no easy way out of foreclosure and no one will ever offer free money, Goodman said.
Also, don’t assume that family members or individuals from the neighborhood are inherently trustworthy when they’re trying to involve themselves in your finances.
“Be very careful about giving out your Social Security number, bank account information or credit card information,” Goodman said. “Never give this information to anyone who calls you or shows up at your door without you having contacted them first.”
For District residents 60 and older who need assistance, call 202-434-2120. The Federal Trade Commission has also established a hotline at 1-877-382-4357.