New identity theft ploy is latest on list of swindles

Scammers are targeting elderly marks with myriad cons

aveciana@MiamiHerald.comMay 13, 2013 

Dottie Drennan answered the call on a warm spring day while home relaxing. A computer-generated voice told the 84-year-old Westchester widow her new Medicare cards were in the mail and her personal information needed to be confirmed.

"That was my first clue that something wasn't right," said Drennan, who continued to listen "out of curiosity."

The deep voice on the other end checked her name and address. Then it asked for the name and the number of the bank account where her Social Security check was deposited every month.

"At that point I hung up. I'm not stupid. I knew it was a scam."

Upset, Drennan reported the strange call, becoming one of many seniors targeted by schemers and scammers not to fall for the ploy. Federal and state agencies have issued warnings about this new identity theft ploy, the latest in a growing list of swindles and cons ranging from investment fraud to telephone scams and cheating caregivers intent on victimizing seniors.

"Every time I turn around there's a new scam," said Alina Becker, elder abuse prevention awareness coordinator for the Alliance for Aging. "For every one we discover there are dozens more. These people just come up with different ways to cheat. They're very creative."

Older adults attract con artists, Becker adds. Those 65 and older are the country's fastest-growing demographic, and Florida tops all states in the percentage of seniors 60 and over, with 4.5 million residents or almost a quarter of the population.

That figure is expected to more than double to 9.7 million by 2030.

"With so many older adults living in your state, Florida is like a laboratory for all kinds of scams," said Sandra Timmerman, director of the MetLife Mature Market Institute. "It's a fertile market."

Senior scams are crimes of opportunity. Older adults tend to have readily accessible retirement savings. They're home more often and easy to reach. Many are socially isolated, vulnerable because of loneliness or depression. They also tend to be more trusting, having lived in a society where private information was truly private and not so readily available on the Internet.

Comprehensive statistics on elder exploitation tend to be sketchy. Authorities such as Miami-Dade police have several units dealing with different kinds of economic crimes. But cases aren't always filed by the age of victims.

Citizen groups have tried to track the problem. For example, a 2010 survey by the Investor Protection Trust, a nonprofit education organization, found one of every five Americans over 65 -- or an estimated 7.5 million seniors -- had been victimized by financial fraud. Another study by the MetLife Mature Market Institute, using mostly news articles and scholarly literature, estimated the annual financial loss by victims totaled $2.9 billion in 2010, a 12 percent increase from an estimated $2.6 billion in 2008.

In Florida, the Department of Children and Families tallies only the number of elderly financial abuse crimes committed by a person known to the senior -- a relative or caregiver, for instance. In 2005, 7,395 cases had been reported to authorities.

By 2012, the total had dropped to 6,026. DCF, however, does not track mortgage scams, telephone swindles or other such schemes.

Experts agree fraud aimed at the elderly is underreported, whether the crime is committed by a relative or a stranger. Advocates and law enforcement officials estimate as few as 14 and as many as 25 incidents are never made public for every one case reported.

Why do seniors keep quiet about their victimization?

"They're embarrassed," said Edith Lederberg, executive director of the Aging and Disability Resource Center of Broward Center. "They're afraid that relatives might think they can't handle their finances."

Women were almost twice as likely to be victims of financial abuse, in part because many live alone and require help with health care or home maintenance, according to the MetLife report.

About 60 percent of the cases Florida International University's Investor Advocacy Clinic sees are filed by older investors, said Robert "Bert" Savage, clinic director and visiting clinical assistant professor at the College of Law.

Many victims are widows dealing with finances for the first time. They face myriad problems from buying services and products they don't need to unscrupulous brokers selling high-fee risky stocks.

"Some of these stories are heart-breaking," Savage said. "It's not like they have the time to make up the money they've lost."

Often, a family member or close friend cons the senior. The MetLife study found 34 percent of the financial abuse crimes were committed by family, friends or neighbors. The IPT study pegs it much higher -- 79 percent of exploitation cases involve theft or diversion of funds or property by family members.

Judging from the calls her office gets, Lederberg puts it at 90 percent.

"We hear about it all the time," she said. "The relative will tell himself, 'I have bills to pay and don't have the money. I'll just borrow temporarily and pay it back.' "

They justify dipping into the senior's assets by rationalizing it's an advance on an inheritance or a form of payment for work they do around the house or as caregivers.

Abuse has flourished because of a lack of awareness, senior advocates say. Sometimes witnesses assume the senior voluntarily signed over the property or gave away her money. They dismiss it as a domestic issue, a misunderstanding between family members or friends.

In the last couple of years, authorities have stepped up efforts to raise awareness. As part of the 2010 Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, the Obama administration established the Office of Financial Protection for Older Americans in the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Last fall it launched the Elder Justice Coordinating Council, made up of representatives from several federal departments and agencies. In its inaugural meeting experts presented testimony on elder abuse, neglect and exploitation.

Last month Florida Sen. Bill Nelson won a commitment from the Jamaican government to extradite any of its citizens indicted on charges of a popular Jamaican Lotto scam that targets the elderly.

On a grassroots level, area agencies on aging visit assisted living facilities, nursing homes, daycare centers -- any place that will help spread the word on prevention.

"This kind of abuse is very slick," Becker said. "This doesn't leave a mark or a cut. The seniors are not screamed at or called names. Instead they are sweet-talked into doing this because they're lonely or isolated or trusting and they just want to be helpful. It's really very sad."

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