Elder fraud

Lynda Webster accompanied by her husband former FBI and CIA director William Webster who were targeted by a man who peddled a lottery scam over phone calls and emails, speaks during a news conference to address elder financial exploitation and law enforcement actions, at Department of Justice in Washington, Thursday, March 7, 2019. 

When your phone’s caller ID says “Layton City Police,” you answer the phone, right? That’s what my sweet, older, single friend thought. So she did.

The nice young man on the phone identified himself as Sgt. Somebody (she doesn’t remember the name) and rattled off his badge number so she was comfortable talking with him. She was. I mean, he’s a police officer with a rank and a badge number. What’s not to trust?

Sgt. Somebody then told her that a man named “Chris” would soon call her and since they (the police) had already talked with him, it was OK for her to talk with him. She told me that at this point, a tiny cloud of doubt showed up in her thoughts. So she politely finished the conversation, hung up, and reached for the phone book to call the police back, just to make sure that call was legitimate. Surprise. The phone rang before she could make that call. It was “Chris.” He called to deliver the good news — she had won a large sum of money! He just needed to know the best way to deliver it to her.

“Why didn’t you call the police anyway?” I asked. She was at a loss to explain, except that “Chris” was so friendly, and talked about his family, and talked about her family, and talked about so many things. He was just full of questions, and so cheerful and friendly and funny …. She and Chris became friends who visited often. The details are too painful to share. But not surprisingly, that prize money came with lots of fees and taxes, and even pass-through funds in her account. Always in front of her was the promised pay out, delivered by a very smooth “Chris” who must have been delighted with her friendship because it yielded so much.

The sad truth is my friend, who retired years ago, is now looking for work. Her life savings plus a few small investments she cashed out are gone, along with peace of mind, enough money to survive on, her plans for a little traveling, and trust in anyone.

Why couldn’t she see what was going on? The answer is: scammers are that good. Unless you or someone close to you has been through this, it’s hard to comprehend how anyone could be so smoothly persuasive. But seriously — they really are that convincing. My mom nearly fell to one of these villains. My brother stopped by her home one day and found her headed out the door with her purse in her hand and fear in her eyes. It took a couple of hours of strong talking to get her to break down and share that her granddaughter was in jail, and she needed to go bail her out with $5,000 worth of gift cards. Yes, I know that sounds crazy. But she was completely convinced not only by that sergeant (are they all sergeants?) but also because they put her “granddaughter” on the phone, screaming and crying, “You’ve got to help me, Grandma!” He also told her that if she told anyone what she was doing, there was no hope for her granddaughter, and they’d put Mom in jail too. Yes, they are that insidiously convincing.

There are ways to fight back. Talk to parents, grandparents, any senior person who might be pulled into this. Senior folks are easy targets because they’re sometimes lonely, and often trusting. Describe all the insidious ways that scammers operate. Share every gory detail. Potential victims need to be more frightened of the stories than of the scammer on their phone.

Make them memorize: “No one has ever won money over the phone!” and “If it’s too good to be true, then it is!” Tell them to use caller ID and only answer to people they recognize — even if it says the police or the IRS or Publisher’s Clearing House. They’ll leave a message if it’s legitimate. Pound into their heads that they should never, ever share account numbers, nor withdraw money for anyone on the phone.

Tell them if something seems legitimate, get a phone number and call back when a family member is with them. And stay vigilant. My friend had been coached by her family years ago, but, well, that was years ago, and her scammer was here and now.

Another friend told me her 88-year-old dad has a great response for scammers. He keeps a whistle by his phone. If he gets a scam call, he tells them to go to hell, blows that whistle into the phone, then hangs up. “He loves scammer calls,” she said. So, buy a whistle and practice that hang-up process. It sounds very satisfying. And empowering.

Finally, stay close. More than anything, they need to be able to talk to someone they trust about anything going on in their lives, including that weird phone call from the police sergeant.

Report scam attempts to usa.gov, let local authorities know, and spread the word. These creeps are like cockroaches who scatter when the light shines on them. It’s time to fumigate.

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