Phone swindle exploits senior vulnerabilities
The state Attorney General’s Office and the AARP Foundation run ElderWatch Colorado, which collects data on financial scams that target seniors and provides educational materials to help keep people from becoming victims. If you’re a senior and believe you’ve been the victim of a fraud, call ElderWatch at 1-800-222-4444, the Aspen Police Department at 970-920-5400, or the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office at 970-920-5300.
When she received the first in a series of phone calls that her son was in an Atlanta jail, an elderly Aspen resident became instantly rattled, forced to act fast.
A man, who she believed was her son on the other end of the line, told her he needed bail money. He was sitting in jail for a drunken-driving accident that killed a seven-months pregnant woman’s unborn child. His nose was broken and required medical attention, which he couldn’t get in the jailhouse, he told her. He also said he was embarrassed and humiliated by the incident and wanted it kept private.
Five minutes later, his public defender called the woman, instructing her to pay a $2,500 bail to release her son.
“It made me very concerned,” said J.O., the initials of a 75-year-old self-employed, single woman who asked that her full name not be used because of privacy issues.
J.O. promptly went to City Market to make separate wire payments of $1,273 and $1,257.
That was April 23, at which time J.O. thought her son was in Europe. But when the caller said he was “Sean” — that’s her son’s name — J.O. believed him. The caller said he had to return to the States because a co-worker of his had died. While in Atlanta, he had the crash that landed him jail.
“He said he was so drunk that he totaled his friend’s car in a bad accident,” J.O. said.
J.O. would make four more Western Union transfers because of her son’s purported plight, pushing the total to nearly $7,500. She took cash advances from her credit cards before learning that she had been scammed.
“When you are older, you have a different state of mind,” J.O. said. “When your kids or your grandkids, who are everything to you, are in trouble, you start panicking, believe me. You worry about your kids and grandkids your whole life, and that’s why they (the scam artists) use you. I never knew people could abuse me like that. It’s awful.”
Seniors can make convenient prey for swindlers. In 2001, the state Attorney General’s Office and the AARP Foundation created ElderWatch Colorado, which collects data on financial scams that target seniors and provides educational materials to help keep people from becoming victims. ElderWatch’s hot line, which is 1-800-222-4444, fielded 3,400 calls in 2012, with 1,105 of those cases combining for a loss of $6.4 million, according to the Attorney General’s Office’s website. The scams come in many forms and can relate to college, veterans, secret shoppers, taxes, tickets, charities, and friends or family members in trouble, among others.
Mary Barbour, program director for Pitkin County Senior Services, said information is regularly provided to older residents warning them of email and telephone swindles.
“It happens to the smartest people,” she said of elderly folks getting fleeced. “We try to put out information at lunch time and in our newsletters. One time I stopped a woman from giving money (to a scam artist). She was 88.”
Such schemes that victimized J.O. aren’t unusual in Aspen, said Aspen Police Department spokeswoman Blair Weyer. Last year, an elderly victim surrendered upwards to $20,000 to a scam.
Generally speaking, the swindles involve wire money transfers, so the funds can’t be easily traced or recouped, Weyer said.
“I’m not aware of any of our cases where restitution was achieved,” Weyer said. “Once that money has been sent off, it can really be hard to get it back.”
Weyer said the scams have become so elaborate that oftentimes their orchestrators do background work on their potential victims, learning family names and addresses.
J.O. said she figured that’s what happened to her. The swindlers knew her son’s name and knew he was out of town.
She was strung along for several days, first wiring the bail money, then wiring $2,330 to a woman she was told was the victim in the crash. And on April 27, she wired another $2,484 to help pay her son’s medical bills, J.O. said.
All of the calls came from the same number with an Atlanta area code. She was given a case number, making her believe it was credible. She did question why she was instructed to wire the money to the Dominican Republic, but felt she had to because of what she believed was her son’s desperate situation.
An hour after she wired her final payment, she got a phone call from her real son. She’d left messages for him, but he didn’t get them because he was in Europe. Upon his returned to the U.S., he listened to her messages and called her.
“He said, ‘I’m fine, I’m fine,’” J.O. recalled. “He said, ‘Mommy, it’s a big scam and told me to go to the police station.”
That’s what J.O. did, but she was told her chances were slim in getting back the money.
She provided the scammer’s phone number (404-382-9107) to The Aspen Times, which made repeated calls seeking information. Each time someone answered, they hung up the phone after a caller identified himself as a reporter. Twice, they answered the phone “Legal Aid Society.”
As for J.O., she says the financial loss has put her in a hole. She didn’t mince words recounting her story, often choking up because she felt so violated. She called the swindlers “evil scammers.” But she hopes other seniors learn from her dilemma and don’t commit the same mistake she did.
“I’m lucky I can work,” she said. “So many people my age can’t work any more. Fortunately I’m healthy and can find my therapy through work.”
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