A Cautionary Tale on Elder Scams

How can we protect our parents and older friends who live alone from tricksters who prey on the elderly? How do we compete with the friendly voice on the other end of the line who has phoned to relay amazingly good news and to start a relationship that curbs the loneliness so many are feeling?  There are services offered by some of the bigger phone companies (Comcast for one) including one that will block robo-calls.  Another service mom or dad might want to consider: one that emails a transcript of all their voicemails to a family member to monitor.  This article from the New Yorker magazine illustrates how vulnerable folks are to this kind of elder abuse.

My Mother and Her Scammer

She was fooled by a group of expert criminals. The rest of us were fooled by her.

Illustration by Colleen Tighe

As soon as we learned of the fraud, Anne froze my mother’s checking account, which the two of them owned jointly. We knew that my mother had moved fifty thousand dollars into that account from Schwab at around the time she made the other transactions, presumably on further instructions from Sam. But now that money was safe.

Or so we thought. Immediately after Anne had visited our mother’s apartment and taken away her checkbooks, our mother called not me or my brother or any of her friends but Sam. The next day, on instructions from him, she drove to a different bank branch from the one she ordinarily used and persuaded someone there to allow her to “fax” the money. (“Fax” was the word she used when she confessed to Anne and me, so I assume she used it at the bank, too.) She told me later that she’d done it because Sam had told her he was in jail and needed the money to get out. The banker who took her wire order asked her what the money was for, and she answered, as Sam had told her to, that it was a payment to a contractor who had done some work for some family who lived in San Antonio (not true). The banker asked why the contractor didn’t have a business name—why she was sending the money to an individual, not to a company. My mother said that this contractor was too small for that. The banker was suspicious enough to refer the request, after my mother had left, to a manager. The manager called my mother, and she confirmed that she wanted to send the money, and, later that day, the transfer went through.

That money my mother did get back, since Anne had frozen the account. The rest is a work in progress; my mother’s stockbroker told me that Schwab is trying to retrieve the hundred and fifty thousand dollars, but didn’t agree that she and her colleagues should have called me earlier. (The broker declined to comment. In a statement, Schwab said that the investigation was ongoing, that it was allowed to hold disbursements if it suspected exploitation, and that, as soon as it did suspect fraud, it “stopped further disbursements, alerted our client’s children, and referred the case to state authorities.”)

Restoring the local bank account involved more effort than I would have guessed, although it probably happened faster than it would have if the bank had been a huge national one, based in a different city. The bank’s general counsel thanked me for my patience and said that I would be amazed at how common such frauds are. He also said that criminal ingenuity is constantly evolving. In one scam, he said, someone approaches a bank customer in the parking lot, claims to be an F.B.I. agent, and asks for help in conducting a sting on a dishonest employee. He said that his customers sometimes receive fraudulent e-mails containing accurate personal information about themselves, which scammers have pieced together from online sources, including social media, or by breaking into people’s computers.

My mother signed up for her apartment because my father was ill and she was worried that she wouldn’t be able to take care of him in their house, into which they had downsized from the home my siblings and I grew up in. He died before the building containing her apartment was finished. She could have backed out then, but decided to go ahead. In a matter like that, you can only be too early or too late, and, all things considered, it’s better to be too early. She was still spry, so the move was a breeze. She made packing-paper templates of some of her favorite pieces of furniture, then arranged the templates on the floor of her new living room, to see which ones she’d be able to keep. Quite a few of her friends moved, too.

With my father, we were too late. He’d been a stockbroker before he retired, when he was younger than I am now. Then, for a number of years, he was a more than able manager of his and my mother’s money. At some point, though, he slipped. His investment adviser allowed him to “diversify” his holdings by moving money out of some overpriced technology stocks and into mutual funds that were made up entirely of the same stocks. He had major surgery, from which he never entirely recovered; then, in 2001, the dot-com bubble burst, and his portfolio was hammered. My mother, my siblings, and I were afraid to intervene, because he’d always seemed so competent, but, in the end, we had surprisingly little trouble persuading him to step aside. I asked him what he would say if I told him I had an older friend who had just enough money for him and his wife to live on for the rest of their lives, and that my friend would like for my father to manage that money for them. He said, “I’d say you were crazy.” I said, “Well, that friend is you, and I think you’re right.” He laughed, and that was pretty much that.

With my mother and her life savings, we were obviously too late. Her stroke, five years ago, seemed catastrophic at the time, but then she made rapid progress. One of the stroke’s most interesting effects, which has never gone away, is that she often leaves the endings off words, both written and spoken. She also has a problem with numbers, and with decimal places. (Several times, she has described the sums she sent to California and Texas as “five-oh-oh-oh-oh,” and she once told me that her winnings from Publishers Clearing House were three hundred million dollars.) Mostly, though, she adapted; all by herself, she figured out how to use Google to check her arithmetic, and she’s always been extremely good at organizing financial records. My siblings and I assumed that, if she became incapable of handling her money, the change would be gradual, and that intervening before things got out of hand would be easy. One of the reasons we felt that way is that her broker, her accountant, and her banker knew her well and seemed to be looking out for her. But it all happened very fast. My mother herself has said that the person she was when she was dealing with Sam now seems to her like someone else.

The senior facility where she lives was bought recently by a big hospital just up the street. (That’s where she drove herself after her stroke.) I’ve spoken a couple of times with a social worker who sees clients in both places. She visited my mother two days after we’d discovered the fraud, and, among other things, encouraged her to eat, even though at that point my mother felt so devastatedby what she had done that she wasn’t sure she even wanted to live. “Your mom said that she and the man who stole her money had become friends,” the social worker said. “She said she stayed home waiting for his phone call—which is exactly what another resident here did. That one was exactly the same story, including the lottery.” She continued, “I feel these people are preying on loneliness, because the other person said the same thing your mom did: ‘But they’re my friends; they’re who I talk to.’ ”

I have piles of old photographs of my parents and their pals yukking it up at beach parties, poker games, football games, cocktail parties, picnics, a ski trip. Of the people in those photographs, my mother is usually the only one who’s alive now. Quite a few people who lived on the street I grew up on lived where my mother does; she’s the last survivor. She had a serious boyfriend in her building for five or six years. They ate dinner together and went to concerts, and one year he took her to the Aspen Music Festival. He died in 2015. For a while, one of my mother’s regular social activities was going to the funerals of old friends, but now, as the herd has thinned, there are even fewer of those. When Anne went to confiscate the checkbooks and credit cards, she had to wait for her to return from visiting a longtime friend who recently moved to the assisted-living wing.

So I can see how it happens. As you get older, your news is only bad. Your friends die, your knees hurt more, your ears stop working, the tests show nothing, your children become impatient. Then, out of the blue, you hear from someone who has wonderful news. He has all the time in the world. He speaks slowly. He’s amazed that you’d like to do such a generous thing for your children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren. He says you sound so nice that he’d like to visit you in Kansas City someday. The main reason my mom trusted him, she told me later, was that he kept calling her, for more than a week: Why would someone be willing to spend that much time with her if he wasn’t for real? And she was doubly susceptible, I suspect, because she has never stopped regretting that we didn’t do something about my father a couple of years sooner. Here, finally, was a chance to make up for that.

The threats, I now understand, are everywhere. I play bridge with a woman who’s exactly my mother’s age. For years, I’ve urged her to get a computer so that she’ll be able to play online if she ever ends up in a nursing home. She never has, and I used to think that was crazy. (Her son bought her a couple of Google Home devices; she uses one to hold down papers on top of her refrigerator.) The elderly are the only people who still answer their phone whenever it rings, the only people who still feel hopeful when they open their mailbox. Anne mentioned my mother’s predicament at her book club, and two of the other women said their parents had been scammed in the same way. There are no reliable statistics about how common elder fraud is, and one reason is that victims and their families are often ashamed to report it. Another is that the perpetrator is very often a member of the family. We’re pretty sure that the initial contact between the scammers and my mother was not over the Internet but through her mailbox, which almost every day contains at least one official-looking invitation to enter a sweepstakes by making a small donation to a worthy cause; her fiasco began with a handful of well-intentioned five-dollar checks. A researcher from this magazine actually tracked down and spoke with H. C., the person my mother sent her checks to. He turns out to be an elderly man who was probably tricked by the same scammers, and thought he was taking part in something to do with Publishers Clearing House.

My daughter and her kids were visiting my wife and me as all of this was unfolding. I told her that she and her husband should view it as a warning, and to watch us closely as we get older. “You’d never do anything like that,” she said. I was flattered, of course. But if I got a call tomorrow from a sympathetic-sounding man who said he was an investigator in the elder-fraud division of the attorney general’s office, and that my mother’s case was different from all those other cases, and that he was certain she’d get her hundred and fifty grand back—well, I wouldn’t send him a check, I’m pretty sure. But I would definitely believe him.

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