By Cynthia Gibson | OW Contributing Writer
South Los Angeles resident Stephanie Grant still remembers the look on her grandmother’s face when she told her she had been scammed out of $10,000.
“She was in shock. I don’t think she understood at first what had happened,” said Grant.
A man who identified himself as her grandson’s attorney informed 78-year old Dorothy Johnson that her grandson had been arrested and would remain in custody until his $10,000 was paid.
“We think it was someone who knew our family, because at the time my brother was in and out of jail a lot,” Grant said. “My grandmother would do anything for my brother and she wouldn’t tell anybody about it either.”
As requested, Johnson paid $10,000 in cash. Grant and her family found out about the scam when she overheard a subsequent conversation between her grandmother and the man posing as an attorney. He was trying to get more money to cover additional “legal fees.”
“When we found out, we kept calling him, but we never got the money back,” Grant said.
In 2021, 92,000 seniors over the age of 60 in the U.S. lost almost $1.7 billion in scams according to the Elder Fraud Report released by the FBI in May. This represents a 74 percent increase over losses reported in 2020.
Most Black adults are aware of at least one scam. An AARP analysis found that 21 percent of African-Americans who were targets of a scam lost money and 60 percent of them reported that they lost money more than once. This is consistent across racial groups.
Seniors are often targeted because they tend to be trusting and polite. They also usually have financial savings, own a home, and have good credit — all of which make them attractive to scammers.
According to the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office, scams targeting seniors with grandchildren have been used for years and are very effective. The perpetrators can be individuals who know their victims or glean information from social media sites like Facebook and Twitter to persuade individuals that the relative is truly involved.
Scammers look for vulnerability and often find it in seniors. They also may be less inclined to report fraud because they don’t know how, or they may be too ashamed at having been scammed. Older adults might also be concerned that their relatives will lose confidence in their abilities to manage their own financial affairs. And when an elderly victim does report a crime, they may be unable to supply detailed information to investigators.
James McCullough, 72, a life-long Park Mesa district resident almost fell for a real estate scam from a former classmate he knew and trusted. He says the classmate was working with another scammer, promising him tens of thousands of dollars if he invested in real estate with them.
McCullough’s classmate promised returns of $80,000 to $100,000 on an initial investment of $10,000. He was suspicious and asked to see a contract or at least a meeting in person. Their reluctance to meet in person triggered McCullough to steer clear of the deal.
Officials tracking scams perpetrated in communities recorded a high number of government imposter schemes. Scammers will claim to be from the IRS or Social Security Administration and request personal information. Lottery, work-from-home, dating online, tax preparation and Black Lives Matter scams are also prevalent.
Reports show utility, immigration, and business coaching scams are more likely to be perpetrated on elderly Whites, whereas Blacks report a higher awareness of fake job postings and COVID-19 stimulus payment scams.
• Social Security impersonation scam: Criminals pose as government employees and threaten to arrest or prosecute victims unless they agree to provide funds or other payments.
• Robocalls/unsolicited phone calls: Con artists often “spoof” their number to make it appear that they are calling from a government agency or legitimate business.
• Sweepstakes/charity/lottery scam: Criminals claim to work for legitimate charitable organizations to gain victims’ trust. Or they claim their targets have won a foreign lottery or sweepstake, which they can collect for a “fee.”
• Romance scam: Criminals pose as interested romantic partners on social media or dating websites to capitalize on their elderly victims’ desire to find companions.
• Computer tech support scam: Criminals pose as technology support representatives and offer to fix non-existent computer issues. The scammers gain remote access to victims’ devices and sensitive information.
• Grandparent scam: Criminals pose as a relative — usually a child or grandchild — claiming to be in immediate financial need.
• IRS impersonation scam: IRS impersonators often accuse victims of owing back taxes that must be paid immediately.
• Identity theft: This wide-ranging category includes calls about actual theft of a wallet or mail, online impersonation, or other illegal efforts to obtain a person’s identifiable information.
• Debt scam: the scammer claims that the victim owed money on their credit card and should make a payment immediately.
• Home repair scam: Criminals appear in person and charge homeowners in advance for home improvement services that they never provide.
• TV/radio scam: Criminals target potential victims using illegitimate advertisements about legitimate services, such as reverse mortgages or credit repair.
• Family/caregiver scam: Relatives or acquaintances of the elderly victims take advantage of them or otherwise get their money.
The House of Representatives passed the Empowering States to Protect Seniors from Bad Actors Act. The bipartisan measure enabled the Securities and Exchange Commission to help state enforcement agencies and task forces protect and educate seniors through the creation of a new Senior Investor Protection Grant Program. The bill authorizes $10 million each year to hire additional investigative staff and improve technology, training and equipment.
Additionally, Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.) sponsored the Senior Security Act, which was passed by the House in 2021. The Senior Security Act created a task force within the SEC to submit reports to Congress every two years on financial schemes targeting seniors, like robocalls and voice spoofing.
The New Jersey lawmaker said he had personal experience with these scams when his own mother was targeted by a purported IRS agent.
“Luckily, we figured out and stopped that ‘IRS agent’ in his tracks,” Gottheimer said. “But how many others paid?”
In 2018, Rep. Karen Bass (C-37) introduced a resolution to raise awareness about the barrage of fraud attempts aimed at seniors. The resolution encouraged Congress to implement policies to prevent senior scams from happening and to improve protections from these scams. The resolution also designated May 15 as “National Senior Fraud Awareness Day.”
“These attacks on the safety and security of seniors in our communities are unacceptable but, unfortunately, they aren’t new. During the pandemic my office received reports of people coming up to the doors of our elders, posing as covid testers or census workers, and requesting sensitive information like social security numbers and other forms of identification – something that real census workers or health workers would never do.” said Bass.
Better Business Bureau Director of Communications Nicole Thomas encourages seniors to try to avoid scams by finding out as much as possible before making any financial transaction.
•Ask for them to come back later, or allow you to call back
•Never render payment at your home
•Call family members or people you trust
•Ask for identification
•Search online for whatever is being requested of you or someone is trying to sell you with the word “scam” after
•Check the Better Business Bureau’s scam tracker, which shows scams reported across the country and where they’re happening
•Add your phone number to the national and state Do Not Call list. This won’t prevent scammers from contacting you, but it’ll make it easier to identify them.
•Make sure your passwords are different across all of your accounts. More than half of Black adults report using the same or a similar password.
•Screen your calls. If you’re not familiar with the number that’s calling you, don’t pick up.
If you believe you or someone you know may have been a victim of elder fraud, contact your local FBI field office at (310) 477-6565 or submit a tip online at losangeles.fbi.gov
When reporting a scam — regardless of dollar amount — include as many of the following details as possible:
•Names of the scammer and/or company
•Dates of contact
•Methods of communication
•Phone numbers, email addresses, mailing addresses, and websites used by the perpetrator
•Methods of payment
•Where you sent funds, including wire transfers and prepaid cards (provide financial institution names, account names, and account numbers)
•Descriptions of your interactions with the scammer and the instructions you were given
•Retain original documentation, emails, faxes, and logs of all communications.
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