Local, Federal Efforts Target Senior Scams
The deception may start with a phone call and an offer to invest money that sounds too good to be true, or a seemingly believable plea for money to rescue a grandchild from serious trouble.
For millions of elderly people who answer such calls, the consequences can be devastating. Fraud accounts for $3 billion in losses and affects one in 10 seniors, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
Financial exploitation of seniors comes in myriad forms, including telemarketing scams and theft of funds by a caregiver or family member. Investment scams, solicitations for romantic partners and contractors who take seniors’ money and run also are on the radar of law enforcement agencies.
Often, red flags signaling that a person may be in trouble are raised by someone other than the victim, according to Kathryn Johnson, program manager of Adult Protective Services for Bloomington's PATH Crisis Center.
“Many times, the victims will talk about it with someone -- they may be in the waiting room at the doctor’s office or hospital and because they are telling a mandated reporter, it gets reported to us,” said Johnson.
Johnson estimated that more than half of the elder abuse cases investigated by PATH involve financial exploitation. The center handles a variety of abuse and neglect calls in McLean and Livingston counties.
According to Johnson, the warning signs that merit scrutiny include an inability to pay bills and unexplained withdrawals from bank accounts. Gifts and spending on new friends should be monitored to ensure an elderly person is not being taken advantage of.
Johnson has seen cases where victims have lost their homes and life savings, often to theft by a family member. A current case involves more than $100,000.
A partnership between the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Central District of Illinois and prosecutors in the district’s 46 counties allows local and federal law enforcement to investigate a broad spectrum of misconduct, ranging from scams based overseas to theft by a caregiver. Federal investigators focus on cases where wire and mail fraud charges may be appropriate, while state prosecutors focus on the felony charges laid out in Illinois law for financial exploitation.
There are no socioeconomic boundaries when it comes to financial fraud, said Doug Quivey, acting U.S. Attorney for the Central District of Illinois.
“We’ve had university professors who have been scammed, retired police officers and physicians,” said Quivey.
The first priority in a fraud investigation is “just trying to get people to come forward,” he said, adding the sooner a perpetrator is identified, the sooner the Secret Service may be able to seize stolen assets for a victim.
One of the major barriers to prosecuting financial fraud involving seniors, said Quivey, is the humiliation victims may feel after the loss is discovered.
“There’s embarrassment and shame that’s part of this. There’s a large case going on in the Champaign area and getting people to come forward is a significant hurdle,” said Quivey. Privacy concerns and the need to disclose personal finances make some people hesitant to cooperate with investigators.
Operations on the dark web allow fraudsters to share the identities of victims they have scammed with other perpetrators. One victim of chronic fraud in central Illinois is out more than $100,000, noted the federal prosecutor.
McLean County State’s Attorney Don Knapp said one or two grand jury subpoenas are issued weekly in McLean County in an effort to locate electronic information tied to fraud attempts. The calls to seniors seeking money for phony emergencies come from “perpetrators giving Oscar-worthy performances,” said Knapp.
When the perpetrator is a family member or a person in a position of trust, prosecution can be more difficult, said Knapp.
“It’s one thing to get scammed by a stranger you’re never going to see,” said Knapp, but holding a loved one accountable is difficult. Victims may be willing to cooperate initially, but as the realization sets in that their testimony could send a family member to prison, “they become less eager with that,” said Knapp.
"COVID has made the problem both worse and more apparent."
The isolation of the pandemic has put many seniors at risk, said Quivey, as friends and family members are unable to visit and monitor their loved ones.
“COVID has made the problem both worse and more apparent,” said Quivey.
Prior to the pandemic, an estimated 13% of American seniors were fraud victims. “That has at least doubled, if not tripled, with the isolation of the pandemic,” said Quivey.
Quivey urged people who receive calls from potential scammers to notify their friends and local police. Solicitations from phony charities, scams involving the IRS and Social Security are among the most common telephone scams.
The key to reducing the spread and number of elder fraud cases is prevention, the prosecutors agreed.
Families should take time for conversations with elderly relatives about future financial planning, said Quivey. Waiting until a person is unable to make decisions can be lead to a complicated and unpleasant situation, he said.
Above all, people need to watch over their family members as they grow older, said Quivey, for signs of suspected financial abuse.
“If you see something, say something,” Quivey advised family members.
Suspected abuse of an elderly person can be reported to PATH at (309) 828-1022, or the 24-hour hotline at (866) 800-1409. Callers may remain anonymous.
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