The Stranger Thief

The type of person who commits elder financial exploitation varies widely. Many people only consider financial exploitation a crime of theft if it is committed by strangers; but, that is not the case. This is primarily because this category receives the most attention in the news; and each of us can relate because we have all received some type of phone call that we perceive as a scam.

These scammers, as they are often called, have no direct physical contact with the victim, and may call from hundreds or thousands of miles away, but by using masked phone numbers, their area code shows they are local to the victim.

The best commentary on these telemarketing scammers can be found in  Kelly Dedel Johnson’s article “Financial Crimes Against the Elderly”. She writes, “these individuals sit inside highly mobile operations that can be assembled and disassembled quickly. In these “boiler rooms”, individuals are given numbers to call and a script. These operations are very adaptive and mature in their processes; with less experienced callers making the initial contact and more experienced callers pressuring the consumer and addressing any of the victim’s potential concerns.”

In a so-called “reload room”, past victims are targeted using various bogus promises to get them to buy again. The calls made from the “reload room” generally result in the bulk of the company’s illicit income.”

Some of these fraudsters prey on lonely seniors who have no one to talk to. They may make their initial contact through various social networking methods, such as Facebook. They develop trusting relationships, sometimes spending hours a day on the phone with the senior citizen. At some point, they begin telling a sad story about their family, or a medical problem, relying on the emotions of the senior citizen to offer money. When the hook is in, they provide the senior with specific instructions on how to send the money via wire, such as Western Union.

If the senior citizen begins to suspect something isn’t right, another con artist might enter the picture posing as a law enforcement or government agent, such as the FBI. This individual will promise to recover the money sent; but, of course, will need a fee to cover some of the expenses. Of course, no government or victim advocacy group would charge a victim for assistance.

It is not uncommon for these scammers to use intimidation and threats to pressure their victims. In one such case, after the victim failed to send $1000, the caller reminded her she had promised to send the money, and if she didn’t send the money that day, bad things were going to happen to her and her family. In another case, when a victim’s son confronted an individual posing as an FBI agent on the phone, the caller laughed, and said, “we know all about you, and your wife, and your daughter. Your mother told us everything. I’ll send my people to take care of you.”

According to the National Council on Aging and Financial Services Roundtable (, below are the top financial scams targeting seniors and perpetrated by strangers:

“The Grandparent Scam”   /   “Fake Accident Ploy”   /   “Loved One In Need”
Scammers will place a call to an older person and when the victim answers, they will say something along the lines of: “Hi Grandma, do you know who this is?” When the unsuspecting grandparent guesses the name of a grandchild the scammer most sounds like, the scammer has established a fake identity without having done any background research. The bogus grandchild will ask for money for a financial problem (overdue rent, payment for car repairs, etc.), to be paid via Western Union or MoneyGram, while begging the grandparent “please don’t tell my parents, they would kill me.”

Or, the con artist gets the victim to wire or send money on the pretext that the person’s child or another relative is in the hospital and needs the money.

“Sweepstakes & Lottery Scams”
Seniors will be sent a check that they can deposit in their bank account, knowing that while it shows up in their account immediately, it will take a few days before the (fake) check is rejected. During that time, the criminals will quickly collect money for supposed fees or taxes on the prize, which they pocket while the victim has the “prize money” removed from his or her account as soon as the check bounces.

“Advance Fee Fraud Or “419” Frauds”
Named after the Nigerian Criminal Code, this fraud is a popular crime with West African organized criminal networks. There are a myriad of schemes and scams – mail, email, fax and telephone promises are designed to entice victims to send money, with the promise of a percentage for their assistance.

“Medicare/Health Insurance Fraud”
Perpetrators pose as a Medicare representative to get older people to give them their personal information, or they will provide bogus services for elderly people at makeshift mobile clinics.

“Counterfeit Prescription Drugs”
Besides paying money for something that will not help a person’s medical condition, victims may purchase unsafe substances that can inflict harm.

“Funeral & Cemetery Scams”
In one approach, scammers read obituaries and call or attend the funeral service of a complete stranger to take advantage of the grieving widow or widower. Claiming the deceased had an outstanding debt with them, scammers will try to extort money from relatives to settle the fake debts.

Another tactic of disreputable funeral homes is to capitalize on family members’ unfamiliarity with the considerable cost of funeral services to add unnecessary charges to the bill. In one common scam of this type, funeral directors will insist that a casket, usually one of the most expensive parts of funeral services, is necessary even when performing a direct cremation, which can be accomplished with a cardboard casket rather than an expensive display or burial casket.

“Fraudulent Anti-Aging Products”
Many older Americans seek out new treatments and medications to maintain a youthful appearance. Botox scams are particularly unsettling, as back alley labs create versions using the root ingredient, botulism neurotoxin, which is one of the most toxic substances known to science.

“Charity Scams”
Money is solicited for fake charities. This often occurs after natural disasters.

“Internet Fraud”
Pop-up browser windows simulating virus-scanning software will fool victims into either downloading a fake anti-virus program (at a substantial cost) or an actual virus that will open up whatever information is on the user’s computer to scammers.

“Investment Schemes”
Because many seniors find themselves planning for retirement and managing their savings once they finish working, a number of investment schemes have been targeted at seniors looking to safeguard their cash for their later years.

“Homeowner/Reverse Mortgage Scams”
Scammers like to take advantage of the fact that many people above a certain age own their homes

“Unsolicited Work”
Victims are coerced, intimidated or otherwise conned into paying unreasonable amounts for poor quality work for services such as roofing, paving, auto body repair, etc.

“Foreclosure Rescue Scam”
The perpetrator claims to be able to instantly stop foreclosure proceedings on the victim’s real property. The scam often involves the victim deeding the property to the perpetrator who says that the victim will be allowed to rent the property until some predetermined future date when the victim’s credit will have been repaired and the property will be deeded back to the victim without cost.

“Debt Relief Scams”
Senior Americans are using their credit cards more to compensate for decreasing retirement funds and increasing medical costs. Financially distressed elders may be vulnerable to debt relief scams by unscrupulous companies that promise to repair a bad credit report or renegotiate a debt.

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Additional resources for elder financial fraud can be found here.

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