Last month, a pair of Swampscott police officers were dispatched to a local Stop & Shop to rescue an older man from Lynn. The man was rattled: A stranger had called to warn that his Social Security number was compromised and he needed to pay $2,500 to protect his identity. The man had withdrawn the money from a nearby bank and was trying to convert it to gift cards, as the caller instructed. A watchful supermarket manager alerted police.
“It’s heartbreaking,” Police Chief Ron Madigan said. “We’ve seen some pretty significant scams, and we don’t find out about many of them until the money’s been wired out of the country.”
Fraud attempts aimed mainly at seniors are at or near record levels nationwide, powered by expertly deployed technologies — robocalls, pop-up computer messages, and “spoofing” with fake caller IDs that make incoming calls seem local. And the more law enforcement and educators step up efforts to prevent scams, the wilier the fraudsters get, adapting technology and tactics to stay one step ahead of the law.
The cat-and-mouse game is “not even a close contest,” said Len Fishman, director of the University of Massachusetts Boston’s Gerontology Institute. “Scammers don’t have to succeed every time. They’re targeting a population of 65-and-over Americans with $17.2 trillion in financial assets.”
Reports of fraud and other financial abuse climbed from 325,500 in 2001 to nearly 3 million last year, Federal Trade Commission data show. Robocalls, those autodialed calls that play a recorded message, are the leading accelerant. Their number jumped from 29 billion to 48 billion in the past two years, according to an index published by software firm YouMail.
Financial losses totaled $1.48 billion in 2018, the FTC said, with victims over 70 losing much more money on average than younger victims. But the problem may be even worse than those figures suggest. Because most who are scammed feel ashamed and embarrassed, and many mistakenly think they’re the only ones targeted, the majority of fraud attempts — failed and successful — are never reported, law enforcement officials believe.
For the con artists, it’s a numbers game — maximum payout for minimal effort.
“These scammers blast thousands of people with robocalls, and a live human being only engages once you respond to the prompt,” said Max Weinstein, chief of the consumer protection division in the office of Attorney General Maura Healey.
High-tech advances have turbocharged their assault. Last year, the FTC issued a $120 million fine against a Miami man, Adrian Abramovich, who the commission said had placed more than 96 million illegal robocalls impersonating travel companies and offering “exclusive” vacation deals.
“Technology’s made it much easier to do a job that used to involve a long con,” said Kathy Stokes, fraud prevention director for AARP, the older Americans’ advocacy group.
Often the enabling technologies were developed for legitimate purposes — autodialing to announce snow days, caller-ID blocking to protect the privacy of doctors. But they’ve been appropriated by fraudsters to hawk everything from fake Medicare cards to sham “enhanced” pensions and stock investments, in exchange for fees or bank account information.
The schemes are constantly being refined. In Massachusetts, the most popular kind last year involved imposters, according to AARP. Typically, callers sought to hoodwink grandparents by posing as their grandchildren, and saying they were in trouble and needed money.
Topping the state’s list of scams in 2017 were bogus debt collection bids, with fraudsters pretending to be government or business agents, badgering potential victims — online or over the phone — about unpaid bills, and warning of dire consequences.
“Scammers know that the most effective way to defraud someone is to hijack their amygdala, the emotional part of the brain,” said Mike Festa, director of AARP Massachusetts. “They don’t want you thinking, they want you reacting. When you’re dealing with the grandchildren, when you’re dealing with the IRS, people are going to have an emotional reaction.”
That’s what happened to Ruth Gordon, 91, a longtime resident of Evans Park, an assisted living community in Newton Corner. She received calls at least two or three times a week from people trying to sell her time-shares before learning to just hang up.
“These callers will say you can make $650,ooo if you rent your time-share out for vacations,” said Gordon, a former school librarian. “But they want money up front. You’re getting ready to hang up, but you don’t want to be rude.”
She admits to losing small sums over the years when she “accidentally” disclosed information to phony debt collectors.
Retired science teacher Beatrice Levoy, 88, another Evans Park resident, fell victim to a scheme on her laptop when she opened an e-mail with a logo purporting to be from Bank of America.
“It looked legitimate,” she said. “It asked me to fill in forms, and I started filling them in. Then when they asked me for my Social Security number, I thought they should know that. I had to call Bank of America. They closed my account and created another one for me.”
Levoy knew she’d been lucky, but the close call has made her wary of going online. “There are so many scams out there that I’m afraid to click on anything now,” she said.
Older folks are especially vulnerable to online and phone scams, said Linda Amir, senior director of financial solutions at Benchmark Senior Living in Waltham, who tries to educate residents of Evans Park and other Benchmark communities about the threat. She said many are trusting, uncertain about new technologies, and part of a generation accustomed to answering phone calls rather than letting them go to voicemail.
“The criminals know this, so they’re perfect targets,” Amir said.
Seniors who live alone can be vulnerable because it’s human nature to welcome contact from the outside world. “If your phone hasn’t rung all week long, and suddenly someone calls, you can think this is someone who’s going to help you with something,” said Julie Schoen, deputy director of the National Center on Elder Abuse at the University of Southern California.
Those who advise seniors say there are steps that can be taken to fend off scammers.
First, don’t answer when unfamiliar phone numbers pop up on caller ID, even if they have a local area code. If you do talk to a caller, never give out your Social Security or bank account numbers or respond to a request to confirm your identity.
People can also adjust their social media settings so they’re visible only to family and friends, set up authentication code alerts to enable access to financial accounts, and use vendors that monitor accounts for suspicious activity.
Lawmakers in Washington are also taking aim at scammers. Last month, the Senate overwhelmingly passed a bipartisan bill to crack down on unwanted robocalls by permitting fines of up to $10,000 per call. The legislation, sponsored by Massachusetts Democrat Ed Markey and South Dakota Republican John Thune, awaits action in the House.
AARP’s Stokes, who runs seminars across the country to raise awareness of senior scams, concedes “it can seem like it’s a really scary world out there.” But she remains optimistic the tide can be reversed with unrelenting education that gives older folks permission to “engage their inner skeptic” when scammers come calling.
Being skeptical of sweet-talking strangers “is advice our parents told us growing up,” Stokes said. “Now it’s time for us to remind them to do it themselves.”