Golden Years Can Be a Gold Mine for Scammers Who Target Our Seniors

Learning that an older family member is in the early stages of Alzheimer's disease is life-changing news. For families it often means that a loved one whom we've relied upon for years will now require a tremendous amount of care and concern from us. It can also mean that our loved one could be at the mercy of scam artists who seek to prey on seniors.

North Carolinians of all ages fall victim to frauds and scams, but there are many scam artists who specifically seek out senior citizens. Unfortunately, seniors are attractive targets for scammers because they often have good credit, investments, equity in their homes and a lifetime of savings.

Exploiting Vulnerabilities

These crooks are also very skilled at exploiting age-related conditions, such as memory loss and depression. The sad truth is that there are criminals out there who will use a senior's vulnerabilities to steal their life savings.

Some of these criminals act alone, while others are part of large criminal organizations. Some are locally based, such as a large home repair fraud ring that my office helped bring down in the late nineties. Others operate in other countries and use elaborate sweepstakes scams, phony international lottery pitches, stories about distant heirs dying without a will in a far off land, and pleas for help moving millions of dollars from a corrupt country. Perhaps you've seen some of the pitches in your mailbox or among your e-mail messages and simply discarded them. But the crooks aren't looking for you. They're aiming for vulnerable victims.

Fraud Prevention Unit

My telemarketing fraud prevention unit hears from victims of these scams on a daily basis. The victims hail from communities across the state. Some are struggling to make ends meet on Social Security payments. Others have built up years' worth of savings only to be scammed out of hundreds of thousands of dollars over several months. My telemarketing staff reports that every two or three days they learn of another "super victim," a senior who has been the victim of multiple scams and lost $10,000 or more.

Profiling Victims

We've been able to help catch some of these scammers and they've told us exactly what they look for in their victims. They look for seniors who show signs of cognitive impairment, who live alone, who are suffering from short-term memory loss or depression, or who may be on medication that impairs their judgment. They also look for older adults who like to gamble or enter sweepstakes.

Criminals pay for lists of seniors who meet these profiles and then target them with a wide variety of scams. A list of many of the scams currently targeting North Carolina seniors is available on my website at www.ncdoj.com under "seniors."

Scammers will often try to drive a wedge between victims and their families, alarming seniors with warnings such as, "Don't tell your family about this $60,000 you've paid for home repairs (or overseas tax payments, or bribes to corrupt bankers). They'll take away your checking account and put you in a nursing home!"

Why Scams Work

Even when these crimes are spotted and reported by concerned citizens, the criminals' spells can remain very powerful. Some seniors suffering from depression, early-stage Alzheimer's or other age-related conditions may continue to believe the scammers are concerned friends who are helping to repair their home, or caring sweepstakes officials who want to make sure they get their prize.

Thanks to help from organizations such as the Alzheimer's Association of Eastern North Carolina and the Memory Assessment Clinic and Eldercare Resource Center in Asheville, members of my staff have been able to better understand the age-related conditions that make some seniors particularly vulnerable to scams. This knowledge helps us as we work with law enforcement across North America to identify victims and investigate cases. It's also helped law enforcement to understand why some victims fall for scams again and again, and has made us all even more determined to pursue these criminals.

Battling Elder Fraud

North Carolina has been at the forefront of battling elder fraud criminals for some time, through aggressive prosecutions and equally aggressive public awareness efforts.

Through partnerships such as the North Carolina Senior Consumer Fraud Task Force, we're able to get the word out about the latest frauds and scams. This group of public and private agencies from across the state share e-mail alerts, which many of you may receive whenever a new scam is spotted. A list of almost 100 of these alerts is located on the Task Force's website (www.dhhs.state.nc.us/aging/fraud/alert.htm). The Task Force also sponsors several large Senior Scam Jam events in communities across the state each year to help seniors learn how to protect themselves from the latest frauds.

We're also attacking the foreign-based scam artists, who do so much damage, by cutting them off from the tools that make their crimes possible: the U.S.-based list brokers who sell the names of elderly sweepstakes participants, the legitimate wire transfer businesses through which the scammers get their victims to wire funds, and legitimate U.S. banks and payment processing services whom the scammers use to debit victims' bank accounts.

Earlier initiatives involving the credit card industry and overnight courier services have caused scammers to avoid using those businesses to commit their crimes against seniors.

Help Us Win the Battle

My office is fighting these criminals every step of the way, but we need your help. As our over-seventy population grows larger, the fraud industry that targets them grows more organized and sophisticated.

The scammers understand well the phenomenon of age-related cognitive decline and how they can turn it into a gold mine. Just as the scammers network to find victims, we need to continue to build our network to spot and report these scams, to interrupt them, to investigate and prosecute them.

You can help us by calling my Consumer Protection office at 1-(877)-5-NO-SCAM to report scams that may be targeting your loved ones. You can also contact us to learn about steps you can take to keep the scammers from tarnishing seniors' golden years.

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