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Helping The Elderly Avoid Scams

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Abigail Wilson
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The financial exploitation of the elderly is considered to be the most prevalent form of elder abuse. And, with evolving technology and a population which is aging, the number of victims is growing, even in the Wichita area. KMUW’s Abigail Wilson has more…

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Lisa lives in Sedgwick County. She has seen the dangers of financial exploitation. Since 2005, she has been battling with scammers who took advantage of one of her family members. A particular day in 2009 sticks out in her mind. While helping her family move, Lisa and her sister found bags, drawers, and boxes full of western union receipts and official-looking certificates. They were from money transfers to Nigeria paying "taxes and fees" on a fake inheritance.

"It’s unbelievable," Lisa says. "It’s like somebody punched you in the stomach. There are really no words to describe it. We just looked at each other and just kept thumbing through and thumbing through, and I’m adding up and adding up and we just kept finding more and more.”

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Receipts from payments to a scammer.

Lisa says the receipts totaled nearly $300,000. And there’s no way any of that money will ever be returned.

Chief Attorney in the Consumer Protection Division of the Sedgwick County District Attorney's office Sharon Werner says there are opportunities galore for this kind of exploitation to happen.

"Some of these sound perhaps obvious to you and me, and some of them are much more sophisticated," she says. "We have very educated and experienced professionals falling victim to scams.”

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Credit Abigail Wilson
Sharon Werner, Chief Attorney in the Consumer Protection Division of the Sedgwick County District Attorney's office.

Werner mentions six people in the past four years who, through separate scams, have lost a combined $914,000. She says financial scam correspondence can come via e-mail, telephone, direct mail and even person-to-person contact on the street or at the mall. However, Werner says the scams all have certain signs and similarities.

“There’s always the element that 'you have to decide right away,'" she explains. "There’s something about it that is going to not be available tomorrow so that the person doesn’t have time to check with a son or a daughter or a spouse."

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A certificate sent from a scammer pretending to be part of the FBI and promising a multi-million dollar inheritance.

Other signs include attempts to make the victim feel special -  as if they’ve been specifically selected for a prize that isn’t available to everyone. In written communication, grammar and spelling are often wrong.

“I think a lot of people think, ‘Well why don’t you go out and arrest these people and throw them in jail?' But, the kind of abuse we see in the consumer protective division generally has to do with the type of exploitation that we can never trace," Werner says. "So there's no way to find them and, even if we could find them, they are generally in another jurisdiction or another country."

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A fake certificate from a scammer, appearing to be from the United Nations.

    

Werner says she has seen an increasing trend in financial scams within her jurisdiction in the past few years. And while the amount of money lost varies from a few thousand dollars to million, she says the losses are all relative.

“One of them sent out $15,000 by Western Union and that was all the money they had," Werner says. "And then on the other hand, you have somebody who inherited $100,000 from one of their parents and in the course of thinking that they were going to get more money, sent $100,000 out of the country. Again, it was their entire savings and inheritance.”

For the elderly in this position, Werner says it often leaves them in an economically dire place.

“A lot of times they don’t want us to contact anybody for fear that their family is going to be mad at them, they’re going to lose their autonomy, those kinds of things,” she says.

And while the elderly aren’t particularly targeted by scammers more than younger populations are, Werner says they are more likely to respond to the communication. Annette Graham understands that. As the executive director of the Central Plains Area Agency on Aging, she works closely with the DA’s office to make sure seniors have resources and information that will help them avoid becoming victims to scammers.

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Credit Abigail Wilson
Annette Graham, Executive Director of the Central Plains Area Agency on Aging.

“We work with a lot of seniors in a variety of programs," Graham says. "We need to get that information out to where seniors are and where caregivers are because a lot of these scams are sophisticated.”

She says the scams come and go in spurts.

“Like last week there was the IRS scam," Graham says. "People calling sounding very official saying, ‘This is the IRS, we’re going to send a sheriff out and arrest you.'"

Graham’s experience with the Agency on Aging parallels Chief Attorney Sharon Werner’s. Both say it’s important for the elderly to stay informed and for family members to be aware.

“I think that for anybody who has an older parent or perhaps an aging sibling or even an aging neighbor, you really need to get involved," Werner says. "There are many victims in these types of scams. It’s not only just the immediate victim but it can have a huge impact on family members.”

Like Lisa, who is still battling scammers after nearly a decade.

“I think we get wrapped up in our lives," Lisa explains. "In hindsight, I would’ve paid more attention to the e-mails, the phone calls. I would have asked more questions. Checked in more often.”

 

Need help spotting a scam? Check out this list compiled by the Federal Trade Commission:

  1. A taxing situation. Internal Revenue Service imposters are the #1 imposter scam in Consumer Sentinel and they’re on the rise. Fake IRS agents may try to scare you into thinking that you owe back taxes or there’s a problem with your return. The real IRS won’t initiate contact by phone or email – instead they’ll start with a postal letter.
  2. Sur-prized? Did the Prize Patrol ring you up to say the only thing between you and a pile of winnings is a little processing fee? Before you call in the cameras, balloons and poster-sized check, hold the phone! If you need to send money to collect your prize, hang up. They’re just pretending to be from Publishers Clearinghouse.
  3. You need professional help. Maybe the con artist tries to persuade you that your computer is on the fritz. In this twist, scammers try to convince you that your computer has a serious and urgent technical problem and that you desperately need their help. Oh, puh-leeze.
  4. Mal-where? Another version goes like this: “I’m calling from Microsoft Technical Support. I’m looking at your computer and there’s dangerous software popping up.” In reality – and you have my “Word” on this – ­ it’s a scam. Put down the phone or refuse to click the pop-up. The fee they demand is usually very low to avoid raising your suspicions. Sometimes they say they’re from billing and you owe money or they need your account information.
  5. Fake FBI. In an old twist on the Nigerian email scam, a phony G-man contacts you with supposed “certification” of the legitimacy of Prince So-and-So from the United Kingdom of Scamnation or some other official-sounding offer. The Prince supposedly wants you to help him move a, well, princely, sum of money out of his troubled country. Nope, not a chance.
  6. Kidnapped computers. You click on a link in an email that seems like it’s from a legitimate company. The window that pops up says a destructive program has locked you out of your files. The pop-up might tell you to click a link so an “FBI agent” can help you. Or they tell you to get a prepaid card and pay for a password that will unlock your files. More often than not, even if you pay the ransom, they don’t release your files. Regularly back up your files to minimize any damage these thieves could cause.
  7. I’ll grant you that… Imagine the caller posing as a government official – could be from the Treasury Department, Health and Human Services, Homeland Security or a made-up agency name with the word “federal” in it – with the surprising news that you’ve won a government grant for thousands of dollars. They encourage you to seal the deal by forking over hundreds of dollars in “taxes” or “fees.”
  8. Medicare masquerade. The sham government representative claims to work for Medicare or in connection with the Affordable Health Care Act or even a made-up agency that sounds a lot like Health and Human Services. They threaten your medical benefits to get your personal information or fees from you.
  9. Fueling fears. Another variation involves a phony Homeland Security caller who threatens immigrants with deportation notices. They offer, for a charge, to help you certify your immigration status. They hope scare tactics will get you off guard long enough to part with valuable information or money.
  10. Caller ID Don’t. An emerging imposter scam involves misusing caller ID. Sometimes they make it seem that the Caller ID number is your telephone number. Others spoof the caller ID with “Mom” to get you to pick up the call.

Visit the Sedgwick County District Attorney's website for more tips and links:

http://bit.ly/1Aex3jm

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To contact KMUW News or to send in a news tip, reach us at news@kmuw.org.

Follow Abigail Wilson on Twitter, @AbigailKMUW