In our continuing conversation with Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich, we discuss the problem of financial scams and con artists who target the elderly.
When Arizona State Attorney General Mark Brnovich talks to people about the growing menace of scam artists and swindlers who target aging seniors, he likes to tell a story about his mother.
“My mom is in her 80s, and she comes from a generation of people who are naturally trusting, and if someone needs something, you help them out,” Brnovich says. “She wants to trust people, and assumes that if someone talks to her, they’re telling the truth.” One day, Brnovich recalls, his mother got a call from someone who said they were from the utilities company, and they told her that she needed to send them $1,000 right away in order to keep her service going. He says she just assumed it was true, because as she said, ‘Why would someone call from the utilities company and ask for $1,000 if it wasn’t true?’
“And I had to tell her, ‘Because they’re lying. They’re trying to scam you.’”
Brnovich’s mother isn’t alone. According to the American Journal of Public Health, 5.4% of people over the age of 65 are targeted by financial scams and swindles of varying types every year, resulting in more than $36 billion in losses. And the number of vulnerable seniors is growing every year. In 2050, the population aged 65 or over is expected to be 83.7 million people, more than double the 40.3 million reported in the 2010 census. And 18 million of those people will be over the age of 85.
Elderly citizens are particularly vulnerable to scammers and swindlers for a variety for reasons. For one thing, they are less tech-savvy, and more likely to believe what they see, read, or hear. They are also less likely to report, or even recognize, a scam until it is too late. But the biggest reason scammers target seniors is that they have money, and lots of it. The Baby Boom generation is the richest cohort in history, with billions of dollars in real-estate assets, retirement savings, investment portfolios, Social Security checks, and other assets. These and other factors make elderly citizens ripe targets for fraud and abuse — and, as the elder population grows, the number of potential targets will continue to increase.
Education & Prevention
Arizona’s dry heat and moderate winters make it a popular destination for retirees. And it is AG Brnovich’s job to make sure that while those retirees are living in Arizona, they’re safe from online scam artists and other predators who see aging retirees as easy marks. Brnovich, who is also chairman of the Conference of Western Attorneys General (CWAG), doesn’t just arrest and prosecute those who prey on the elderly, however; he also feels that one of his most important responsibilities as AG is educating citizens about the many ways in which scam artists and cyber-criminals may try to steal their money. Raising public awareness is “the first line of defense” against this rising tide of unscrupulous swindlers, he says, and his office devotes significant resources to making sure that citizens of Arizona have the information they need to protect themselves and their loved ones.
“In the old days, if you wanted to rob someone, you had to get a gun or knife or whatever and go confront them,” says Brnovich. “Nowadays, people can use their computer or phone to target and rob vulnerable seniors.”
Educating the public — young as well as old — about the risks and dangers of responding to solicitations via email, regular mail, or over the phone is an everyday effort in the Arizona AG’s office. Brnovich’s staff also tours the state giving presentations to seniors and caregivers detailing best practices for avoiding fraud, alerting them to available resources, and informing them which authorities to contact if they suspect foul play.
Scams targeting seniors take many forms. According to the National Council on Aging (NCOA), the top ten scams targeting seniors are:
- Medicare/health-insurance scams;
- Counterfeit prescription drugs;
- Funeral and cemetery scams;
- Fraudulent anti-aging products;
- Telemarketing or phone scams;
- Internet fraud and email-phishing scams;
- Bogus investment schemes;
- Home equity and reverse-mortgage scams;
- Sweepstakes and lottery scams; and
- People pretending to be grandchildren or relatives.
Awareness is Key
Many fraudsters make initial contact with their victim via the telephone or the internet, using a senior’s lack of skepticism, natural empathy, or declining mental health against them. After natural disasters, for instance, scammers often call pretending to represent a charity for the victims and then ask for a bogus donation. Or, the scam may take the form of an official-looking email from the IRS or some other reputable institution asking them to update or “verify” their personal information in order to receive a hefty refund.
In addition to these common scams, teams of con artists sometimes devise elaborate ruses that are more difficult to detect. According to the NCOA, a team of con artists in San Diego sent personalized letters to property owners that appeared to be from the County Assessor’s Office. The letter identified the property’s assessed value (a matter of public record) and offered the homeowner a reassessment of their property — for a fee — in order to lower their property taxes. The scammers pocketed the assessment fee and promptly disappeared.
“Educating people that everything that glitters is not gold is a very important part of helping seniors avoid frauds and scams,” explains Brnovich. “One of the things we’ve tried to do is create a list, where seniors can sign up and get a palm card every month describing the latest scams, and what to do and not to do, in order to protect themselves from identify theft.”
Act, Before It’s Too Late
Unfortunately, if someone is slipping into dementia or experiencing some other sort of cognitive decline, efforts to “educate” them may be insufficient to protect them from financial predators. That’s why elder advocates emphasize the importance of educating members of a senior’s support network — family, friends, doctors, and caregivers — to recognize signs of cognitive impairment so that they can intervene if necessary. Once the scammers have a credit card number or have gained access to a bank account, it doesn’t take long for a thief to do some serious damage.
“By the time our office gets a complaint, it’s too late — somebody has already robbed someone, or stolen their bank account information, or defrauded them,” warns Brnovich. “If we catch the wrongdoer, we may be able to prosecute them and send them to jail, but the victims may have already lost everything, and sometimes there’s no way to get it back. That’s why prevention is so important. It’s a cliché, but it’s true — an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”