Scammers increasingly target seniors

Fairfield Daily Republic ©

For a local 74-year-old man with a trusting soul, a trip to the hardware store would cost more than the materials in his cart.

Two years ago, two men approached Emilio while in the parking lot. They used flattery as a tactic to gain his trust, complimenting the look of his car.

The conversation progressed to local ethnic restaurants and eventually, Emilio, whose name has been changed for his protection, was asked if he could give them a ride. They offered him money and took out a roll of $20 bills.

Feeling safe and unthreatened, he allowed them in the vehicle.

During the drive, the older of the two took out a 'winning' lottery ticket, showed it to Emilio and mentioning he couldnt collect the money because he was undocumented.

The younger man suggested Emilio cash the ticket. If he did, Emilio would get $65,000 half the amount of the winning ticket.

'I saw the ticket. It looked real to me,' he said, his eyes lowered.

Emilio was asked to front $9,800 in good faith and, without hesitation, drove to the bank where he withdraw the cash.

The trio made one more stop at a Vallejo drug store, where the men handed Emilio the lottery ticket before disappearing.

But it wasnt a winning ticket, Emilio soon found out, and he was out the money.

This scam is considered to be financial abuse, committed by predators who target elders and dependent adults.

It happens every 10 seconds to seniors in California, according to a report by the County Welfare Directors Association of California, although only one in 100 incidents of elder financial abuse is actually reported.

Emilio, humiliated and ashamed, still carries the 'winning' lottery ticket from two years ago in his black wallet. And he still carries the $9,800 withdrawal slip.

'I heard of identity theft before but I just got so anxious about getting some funding,' he confessed. 'I was so dumb to do that. Im so mad at myself because I didnt check on it first.'

Prey on trust

A one-inch stack of mail, held together by a thin rubberband, is produced by the shaking hands of Emilio.

He pulls out three checks purportedly worth $12,000 combined that he received in just the past week.

The letters attached promise him a wealth of fortune as long as he deposits the checks after sending them a few thousand dollars for nominal fees.

This time, Emilio isnt falling for it.

'Im not doing this again. They just want my money,' he said, then laughed with a touch of embarrassment.

But Emilio and such victims shouldnt be hard on themselves, said Linda Watts, deputy director for older and disabled adult services division for Solano County.

'You dont have to be incapable to be victimized,' she said. 'And if they can scam those who are competent, imagine what they can do those who are not.'

Although con artists hit persons of all ages and demographics, predators target elders and dependent adults because of their vulnerabilities. They focus on those who live alone and are isolated, have cognitive impairment or have physical limitations.

That might pose a problem for Californians within the next two decades.

California has more residents over 65 than any other state in the nation, the U.S. Census Bureau said, with the states elder population expected to nearly double within the next 20 years, from 3.7 million to more than 6.4 million.

And that means the $4.8 billion in assets California seniors have could be vulnerable to con artists.

'This is a very serious problem,' said Dale Hogg, a detective from Vacaville Police Departments First Investigative Response Team.

'What weve done is focus more on education by doing presentations for seniors, the ones who get targeted the most,' he said. 'These guys are scammers and some are very good.'

For instance, Hogg said, be wary of someone who promises to fix a dent in the car or those who claim to be contractors but need to be paid first before beginning repairs.

'Youd be surprised, a lot of elderly people who can function as far as taking care of themselves, paying bills and feeding themselves have a diminutive capacity to make financial decisions. And this is what they look for,' he said.

To catch a thief

Steve Hosking is a coordinator for Solano FAST, an acronym for Financial Abuse Specialist Teams, as well as a retired officer from the Vacaville Police Department.

For the past six years, Hosking has been working elder abuse cases with the Area Agency on Aging. Its a passion of his, he said.

'Typically these sorts of cases are underreported because seniors dont want to talk about it,' he said. 'But the cases that come to my attention involve either family members, care providers or a trusted associate. You name it, its done.'

For these cases, he said, assets are diverted from an elder to a family member or entrusted associate. Already, there have been 30 reported cases this year.

According to Watts, $8 million dollars have been recovered or saved in Solano County within a one-year time frame, thanks to FAST.

'FAST is the most important thing the county has fostered,' Watts said. 'The Area Agency on Aging wrote a grant proposal and we got the funding for it.

'And what were trying to do is stop the temptation of seeing a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow,' she continued. 'Some seniors think the scam is going to work. They trust them, but its not.'

But for those who get scammed outside of family members, how difficult is it to catch the thief? Very, said David Knitter, chairman of FAST.

'Once that money is sent, its hard to track,' he said. 'Most of these scams generate from Canada and will have people in the United States wire them the money.'

Hogg agreed and added there are problems tracking wired money through Western Union.

'All you need is a routing number,' he said. 'The money is taken out and its virtually untraceable. I have no doubts its the same people who did the Canadian lottery scam two years ago. They work one system and when they see the money not coming in, they try another.

'And thats what they keep doing. Theyre just changing their game to get the same results.'


A study in the Journal of American Medical Association show seniors who are victims of such abuse have a mortality rate three times higher than those who are not victims.

'This has shortened peoples lives and has effected their health,' Watts said. 'People can make all kinds of guesses as to why, but we know that it takes an emotional toll because they lost what they had or that they wont have a way to take care of themselves.

'If youre younger, you have time to recover, time to build your nest,' Watts continued. 'But the older you are, once you get to retirement, building a nest doesnt happen. And that can be devastating.'

Hosking strongly suggested reporting any abuse of any person to the local police department. There is no reason to feel ashamed.

'Its becoming openly spoken of and socially more accepted to report,' Hosking said. 'Its about where child abuse was 30 years ago, when folks realized it was a crime and could be reported.'

Movement in the government to eliminate fraud and scams are also progressing. A 2005 legislation SB 1018 mandates that all bank employees report elder financial abuse to law enforcement, a legislation coauthored by Assemblywoman Lois Wolk.

'We are seeing more cases but I dont think its more than before,' Hosking said. 'I just think more are being reported.

'These are folks who are losing their life assets and they cant get it back. Theyre past their working productive years.'