Chuck isn’t sure exactly how much money he sent, or where all he sent it.
“Delaware, I think. Or Georgia ... maybe New Jersey,” Chuck said. “Someplace out east and someplace out west. There was a guy from Washington, D.C. He was to do with the Federal Reserve. The guy in the West Coast company said I had won $4 million.”
In order to collect his sweepstakes winnings, Chuck was told, he’d have to send money to pay taxes or some such thing. Chuck, an 88-year-old retired postal carrier who lives in a Minneapolis senior high-rise, complied.
“I should have known better myself. I’ve been around this world for a lot of years,” he said. “But it sounded so good! I kept thinking, if I could get all this [money], I could do all kinds of things with it.”
He sent sums of money here and there, as instructed by callers whose identity and locations were hazy. The teller at his credit union asked if he was sure he knew what he was doing. An employee at Western Union tried to talk him out of wiring money to a stranger. He ignored them.
Chuck’s daughter noticed that her usually chatty father seemed unusually reticent.
“He’d been acting kind of weird on the phone, like not wanting to talk to me when I called,” said Chuck’s daughter Andrea, a 60-year-old Bloomington resident. “Finally I said, ‘Is anything going on?’ He said, ‘I’ll let you know. It’ll be over soon, and then I’ll tell you all about it.’ ”
But by the time Andrea and her brother intervened, Chuck had gone through his life savings. He had also obtained cash advances from his credit card. He cashed out a life insurance policy and sent that money, too.
Altogether, Chuck lost about $12,000 to scammers.
Reaching into your living room
You pick up your phone. Someone on the other end purports to be from the IRS. Or claims to be a computer technician. Or calls you Grandma.
You open your e-mail. A message carrying your bank’s logo reports a problem with your account. A widow on her deathbed needs your help distributing her fortune.
You’re in trouble, you’re told. You’ll be arrested for unpaid taxes. Your accounts will be frozen. Your computer is infested with a virus. Your grandson needs bail money.
Or sometimes it’s good news. You’ve won a sweepstakes or a lottery! The dying widow with strange grammar wants to share millions of dollars with you!
Click here, you’re instructed. Call this number. Type in your account password. Wire the money. Send prepaid gift cards. Act immediately, or else. And don’t discuss this with anyone.
Impostor fraud, in which a scammer pretends to be someone else — an IRS agent, a lottery representative, a grandkid — is one of the most common types of fraud. Americans lost $328 million last year to impostors, according to the Federal Trade Commission.
Almost a third of all phone calls are now from scammers. By next year half of all mobile calls may be scams, according to First Orion, a company that provides call management and protection for phone services. Meanwhile, your e-mail may be full of fake claims and requests.
“It’s not like it used to be, when if you stayed on the right side of the tracks you wouldn’t get in trouble,” said Jay Haapala, who gives presentations on fraud as associate state director of community outreach at AARP Minnesota. “Now they can reach you right in your living room.”
An estimated one in five Americans over 65 has been victim of fraud (including identity theft and other swindles, as well as impostor fraud). Younger consumers report being scammed more often than people over age 70. But the median loss reported by people between 20 and 29 is $400, compared with $1,092 for people over 80.
It gets worse. Last year, a Twin Cities couple lost $200,000 to a sophisticated e-mail scammer posing as the title company on a house they were buying. In 2010, an 82-year-old Louisiana woman committed suicide after losing her life savings, taking out a reverse mortgage and cashing in a life insurance policy — hundreds of thousands of dollars that went to thieves. By the time her family found out, her bank account held $69.
Fraud is even more common than the numbers would suggest. For every case reported to authorities, studies indicate that as many as 44 are not, said Jessica Looman, commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Commerce.
“Scammers create a false sense of urgency, threat, confusion or greed for folks,” Looman said. “Then they turn that on them and they make them ashamed and embarrassed they’ve been victimized.”
Mary, a 78-year-old Maple Grove resident, saw her grandson’s name and phone number on the caller ID as she picked up the phone.
“Grandma?” a voice said.
Mary, who sees her grandson every few months, knew right away it wasn’t him.
“Oh, hi,” she said. “Let me put you on speaker so Grandpa can hear.”
The caller hung up. Mary’s grandson’s phone company had no record of a call from his number.
“Through technology, everything is available,” Haapala said.
Scammers can hide from caller ID. They can use fake phone numbers that contain the area code and prefix from your community, even if the call is actually coming from a foreign country. Using robo-dialing systems, crooks can make thousands of calls a day.
And when they manage to trick people, they instruct them to send money in strange ways, sidestepping the protections that banks and credit card companies provide.
“It’s all about anonymous payments,” Haapala said. “If you send it in a wire transfer or prepaid gift cards, nobody’s looking over your shoulder. They even use cryptocurrency like Bitcoin, because it can’t be traced.”
Spreading the word
Scammers steal more than money, Haapala said. “Scammers also take your dignity and maybe your independence; your family may not trust you anymore with money.”
When you get a fishy call or e-mail — or worse, get fleeced — tell a relative or friend. Report it to authorities. Anti-fraud organizations say open discussion is the best weapon. In addition to warning others, talking may help lessen the stigma of falling for a scam.
“I think we all put ourselves at a disadvantage because, as a culture, we don’t talk about money,” Haapala said.
Consumer and government organizations are working to spread information. AARP Minnesota holds about 100 free community information sessions each year throughout the state. AARP operates a national toll-free call center to assist victims and answer consumers’ questions at 1-877-908-3360. Its website contains lots of scam information (aarp.org/money/scams-fraud). One recent scam claims to be from AARP itself.(Spoiler: It’s not.)
AARP also hosts “The Perfect Scam,” a weekly podcast that includes interviews with scam victims and former professional con artists (aarp.org/podcasts/the-perfect-scam).
The Minnesota Department of Commerce has held more than 100 meetings about fraud around the state, often in senior centers, and distributed more than 30,000 copies of an anti-fraud toolkit (download it at mn.gov/commerce/consumers/your-money/senior-safe).
“Our goal is to make fraud 100 percent preventable,” Looman said. “If we don’t report it, people are going to keep losing their money.”