Internet and telephone scammers can target senior citizens with a quiver full of devious arrows, but the Idaho Attorney General’s Office says seniors have one weapon that can neutralize them all: time.
To make sure they have time on their side, seniors should have a plan in place for when that call, text or email eventually comes, said Deputy Attorney General Brett DeLange, the head of the office’s Consumer Protection Division.
“The most important thing is for families to have these conversations,” DeLange said before demonstrating how that conversation might go. “ ‘Let’s agree that you won’t respond on the phone. You’ll first call me, and we’ll talk about it. Time is our ally. (Scammers) know that, and they’re going to try to make you decide on the phone right now, because that’s the only way they’re going to be able to steal from you.’ ”
If someone doesn’t have a trustworthy person to talk to, DeLange encouraged them to call the Consumer Protection Division hotline at (800) 432-3545, where employees in his office can offer expert advice.
Criminals are endlessly inventive and have the technology that allows them to commit crimes from other countries, where they can be out of the reach of local law enforcement.
“In the old days, the man from River City had to come into town to hawk his wares,” DeLange said, referencing “The Music Man,” a classic musical about a charismatic swindler. “Nowadays, he can hang out in the Caribbean Islands or in India or somewhere overseas and blast out emails or robocalls.”
So while the variety of scams crooks cook up can seem overwhelming, they can be exposed by even a moment’s careful examination and reflection.
For example, one of the more common ploys going around is the “IRS scam,” in which a caller poses as an employee of the Internal Revenue Service or other government agency to forcefully demand payment for things like back taxes or other fees and penalties. But DeLange said that approach is easy to spot because those agencies never take those kinds of action by phone.
“I have heard these calls,” he said of his division’s investigations. “They sound legit, and they sound horrible. That would freak anyone out. But we just have to say, ‘Is this really the IRS?’ If they really do have a problem, they’ll send you a letter. They’re not going to call you on the phone and demand payment.”
Some scams have even hit close to home for DeLange, literally. His 85-year-old neighbor recently told him of a call from someone purporting to be a grandson who was in some kind of trouble and needed money. She smelled a rat, however, and the call didn’t go any further.
“It’s representative of the calls that I’m confident our senior citizens are receiving every single day, all around the state,” he said.
And while seniors aren’t necessarily more susceptible to these types of fraud, they do tend to have landlines that are listed in directories and are more apt to pick up the phone when it rings. One way to combat that vulnerability is to use the caller identification information that most cellphones and landlines offer. DeLange said the best approach is to simply not answer if an unrecognized number pops up.
“If it’s important enough, they’ll leave a message,” he said.
Nez Perce County Prosecutor Justin Coleman said local law enforcement fields several complaints per year about online and telephone scams, and they are typically forwarded to the Attorney General’s Office, since it specializes in that type of crime. But his office frequently deals with elder fraud cases perpetrated not by strangers on a far-away island, but by those right inside the victim’s inner circle.
Those fraud cases almost always involve the unauthorized use of cash, checking accounts or bank cards by a trusted person, like a caregiver or a family member.
“We take those cases seriously, and our police department does a really good job of following up on those and bringing us a case that can be prosecuted,” Coleman said.
But since those thefts can involve family members or someone the victim thought they could trust, embarrassment and shame often discourage the victim from going to police. Coleman said that makes elder fraud one of the more underreported crimes.
He suggested that seniors remain vigilant about checking their financial statements for suspicious activity. And if they see something that seems odd, they shouldn’t feel ashamed to discreetly seek the assistance of a police officer.
Mills may be contacted at email@example.com or (208) 848-2266.