Scammers who stole millions from elders indicted — how to protect yourself

Christopher Budd 26 Aug 2021

For one of the first times ever, scammers who take advantage of elderly people facing the law

On August 25, 2021, the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in San Diego California announced indictments against eight individuals they claim stole more than $2 million from victims over the age of 70 across the United States, with at least 10 victims in the San Diego area.

This is one of the first major law enforcement actions against scammers who target elder victims in the United States.

Scams against elder victims are a huge and growing problem. The FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) reports every year on cybercrime trends. In their 2020 report IC3 notes that “In 2020, the IC3 received 105,301 complaints from victims over the age of 60 with total losses in excess of $966 million.”

Looking at these indictments, we can see some of the tactics scammers are using to target elder victims, as well as concrete things that elders -- and everyone -- can do to better protect themselves against these scams.

The scam 

The indictments allege these eight individuals carried out elaborately planned scams that started by telephone and tried to convince the intended victim that they were being contacted by a grandchild or someone else close to them and that the caller was “in dire legal trouble because of an accident or arrest.”

To make the scam more credible, the indictments allege, the scammers used multiple parties to impersonate lawyers and others supposedly involved in the “incident.” They used well-rehearsed scripts to further increase the believability of the scam.

Eventually the scammers collected funds by either dispatching someone in person to collect the money from the intended victim directly or through wire transfers. In one case detailed in the indictment, the scammers followed up an initial collection of $9,000, supposedly for bail for the victim’s granddaughter, with a second collection of$42,000, supposedly for a settlement to not press charges against the granddaughter in the same (fake) car accident.

Unfortunately these scams were successful. The indictment claims all the defendants collected over $2 million in total. It also notes that one defendant collected $33,000 from three different victims in a single day.

How to protect yourself

In looking through the indictments, we can clearly see three things that everyone can do to  better protect against these kinds of scams.

  1. Be wary of all incoming calls and emails
  2. Watch out for and resist time pressure tactics
  3. Watch out for and resist calls for secrecy

Many people know to be wary of incoming emails because of spam. The same rule applies to telephone calls. Scammers use the telephone with intended elder victims specifically because the scammers know that phone calls will be met with less wariness and skepticism. By using a grandchild or other person the intended victim is emotionally attached to, the scammers seek to further break down possible resistance to the scam. Adding a sense of imminent danger or crisis to the scam increases the emotional response and seeks to further break down resistance.

If you receive a call out of the blue suddenly asking for money, even if it seems to be for someone you care about in dire circumstances, you should still be wary and try to find ways to independently check the validity of the situation. In these scams, the scammers used additional parties to create the illusion of checking the validity of the situation, but these were individuals that were either put on the same inbound call or they themselves called the intended victim. The key point here to protect yourself is to verify the situation through calls or contact you make yourself to parties you know and trust at numbers or in ways that you already know are valid.

Scammers  know that people make worse decisions when pressed for time. To counter that, resist time pressure tactics and understand that in almost all cases, you can (and should) take some time to independently verify what’s going on and to decide what you’re going to do. Part of resisting time pressure tactics means ending the call or the exchange and getting time to verify, think about what’s going on, and conferring with others you trust.

Which brings us to the other key tactic we see scammers use in these cases: enforcing secrecy. Scammers know that if their intended victim talks with friends, family, or the authorities, their scam is more likely to fail. Because of this, they try to convince their targets not to share what’s going on with anyone else. This alone should always be a huge red flag: In almost all cases, legitimate authorities aren’t going to demand secrecy. If you’re dealing with a situation where people are demanding secrecy, there are very good odds that you’re looking at a scam.

Putting protections into practice

If you are contacted by phone with a scenario like this, get a phone number you can call back. Then, end the conversation and contact friends, family, or authorities you trust to verify what’s going on and get guidance on what you should do next.

If you’re dealing with a legitimate situation, you’ll be able to follow up with the information you get. If it’s a scam, however, you’ll almost certainly hit resistance -- and that should tip you off.

Don’t be afraid to stand firm. It’s not impolite or wrong to take time to do the right thing.

If you have fallen victim to a scam like this, you should contact your financial institution right away and let them know: They may be able to help stop the transfer of money or recover it. Time is of the essence.

You should also file a complaint with law enforcement. You can go to the IC3 website and choose “File a Complaint.” That will start the process for you.

It’s good that law enforcement is working to take down scammers like this. It also serves as a reminder of the problem of scams targeting elders and the tactics these scammers use. Most importantly, it shows again what everyone can do to help better protect themselves from this type of scam.

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