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Dangling the Carrot

Scammers increasingly target seniors for their money, and there's little anyone can do to stop it

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There was always a voice in the back of Jill's head telling her it wasn't real. No way did she win millions of dollars, the voice told her. No way was the guy on the phone legitimate. No way were her dreams actually coming true.

And then Jill had another thought: What if it was real?

The call came earlier this year, in spring, she remembers. The caller ID said it was from Stockton, California. As a rule, Jill, 73, doesn't answer her phone if it's a number she doesn't recognize, so she let it go to voicemail. When she played the message, it was a man with a Hispanic accent named John Thompson, or Tom Johnson — she can't remember which — saying he was with International Lottery Corporation. She won $2 million, he said.

Who can't use $2 million?

Jill, who asked to be identified only by her first name, lived alone in her home in Vancouver, Washington. She worked for two decades for the state of Oregon, living what she called her "dream job" for the state marine board, before retiring in 2006. She keeps a boat in Portland for recreation. She has a good group of friends. She's been divorced since 1998, and she has three adult kids. She sees them when she can, and sometimes that means half-day car trips to Idaho. With an extra $2 million, she thought, she could pay her bills, pay for the dental work she's been putting off and pay off the balance of her children's homes.

"I would love to be able to do that for my kids," Jill says.

Everyday, scammers prey on older adults by eliciting an emotional response that overrides the victim's logic. Some surveys indicate one in five people over 65 will be taken advantage of by scammers. It ranges from lottery scams, like the call Jill received, to sweetheart scams in which a scammer pretends to be a love interest before convincing the person to send money. While younger adults are also targeted by scammers, it's the elderly who see far greater financial losses. And so far, there's little that law enforcement or any other authority can do about it.

That leaves the responsibility on the elderly themselves to sniff out scams. Yet among senior citizens, often those isolated from friends or family members and bombarded each day by scam calls, it can be hard to sort the truth from a lie.

So Jill, holding out hope that maybe this time she had won the lottery, called the guy back.

THE WIRE TRANSFER

The man on the other end of the phone call seemed nice and personable, Jill says. He was calling from Stockton. He told her all she had to do was fill out some paperwork, and send $454 to claim the $2 million she had won.

She had her doubts. They spoke several times over the course of a few days. But he became more and more convincing. Every time she had a question, he had an answer. He was persistent. She couldn't keep her eyes off the "pie in the sky," she says.

Eventually, he convinced her, and she convinced herself, that he was believable.

Jill got into her car, and she drove to her credit union and withdrew $454, as she was instructed. From there, she drove another few miles to Bank of America, where he told her to make the deposit into his account, in Florida.

She didn't hear from him until a few days later, when he called again asking for more money. This time, she wasn't fooled. She Googled the company he claimed to represent, and the website said it wouldn't ask for money if a person had won the lottery. She told him she looked it up and knew she didn't actually have to pay anything. She was done paying him, she said. She wanted the money he promised. She threatened to call police. He told her he'd check with his supervisor, but she never heard from him again.

"I am embarrassed. I was suckered into it," Jill says. "I put $454 of my retirement into this thing, hoping it would be a real payoff even though, in the back of my head, I knew it wasn't."

MANUFACTURING FEAR

Each year, millions of people report cases of fraud, identity theft or some type of scam to law enforcement. Nationally, the number of complaints has risen from approximately 325,000 in 2001 to more than 3 million in 2016. In Washington, nearly 2,000 people reported some type of prize or lottery scam, like Jill's, in 2016, according to a Consumer Sentinel Network Report compiled by the Federal Trade Commission.

As a metropolitan area, Spokane and Spokane Valley rank sixth in the entire nation for reported consumer complaints per 100,000 people. The Coeur d'Alene metro area ranks 44th. Those numbers, however, may not mean there are more fraud victims in the Spokane region, only that that more people in the Spokane region are reporting it.

Gail, a 55-year-old woman living in Spokane Valley, was the victim of identity theft after a man called and claimed she had failed to show up for court after witnessing an accident in Idaho in September. The man, who identified himself as a deputy named Andrew, said she needed to pay court fines or else she might go to jail. She didn't have any money, so she sent him a copy of her picture ID and her Social Security card before she realized it was a scam.

"I was thinking, I'm gonna go drive to church Sunday morning to go to Sunday school, and I'm gonna get arrested on these warrants," Gail says.

That's exactly the emotion scammers are going for, says Doug Shadel, state director for AARP Washington. The fraudsters want victims to feel some emotion, whether it's extreme happiness, fear or love. That way, people aren't thinking logically, and they're more likely to hand over money, he says.

"It's easier to manipulate them that way," he says.

Shadel has interviewed both con artists and their victims. He says the scammers are typically looking for people who live alone and don't have a spouse to tell them something might be fake. The scam is even more likely to work if the victim has recently experienced a negative life event — a major financial loss, or a tragedy.

"They're more likely then to take chances, to be risk takers. They're also more likely to do things without thinking through the alternatives," Shadel says.

And some people are just so overcome with hope that it could be real, they ignore evidence to the contrary right in front of them. In focus groups with families of fraud victims, Shadel says family members report that despite their efforts to convince someone they love that they were scammed, some just refuse to buy the truth.

"They couldn't convince them that they hadn't won the prize," Shadel says. "Because they just wanted to believe."

SLIPPING PAST THE LAW

For Mark Gregory, a deputy with the Spokane County Sheriff's Office, it's hard to keep up with the different kinds of scams. Though at their heart, there isn't much difference between them.

"Scams are the same," Gregory says. "The only thing that changes is a little bit of the story."

Nearly all of the scammers get away with it. And nearly all victims will never see a penny they lost.

The calls come from out of the state, or out of the country. The scammers use different phone numbers. It makes it nearly impossible for a local law enforcement agency to find them at all. The Internal Revenue Service for years has tried to stop scammers from impersonating IRS agents who ask victims for money, but IRS scams continue nevertheless.

"If the IRS hasn't been able to stop IRS scams, with all of their resources," Gregory says, "how are we supposed to?"

So law enforcement uses a different tactic: education. Maybe if people know what to look for, the thinking goes, they won't fall prey to scams. Since February 2016, Gregory has sent out a dozen different press releases about a new scam impacting local residents. "'Grandparent Scam' Still Active — Don't Be Fooled," reads one headline. "Deputies will NEVER Ask You To Pay Fines Over The Phone," says another. Still, it's difficult for those messages to reach everyone, especially elderly populations. For scammers, simply changing the story is effective enough. When the story changes, people who aren't social media savvy, who don't pay attention to the news, or who don't have a regular circle of friends, may get taken advantage of. And it's more often senior citizens in those situations.

There are several challenges barring authorities from holding scammers accountable with litigation, particularly among "grandparent" and "tech support" scams that impact older populations, says Shannon Smith, the division chief of Consumer Protection for the Washington State Attorney General's Office. Beyond the fact that some scammers may live as far away as India, Smith says that increasingly, the scams involve the use of gift cards, which makes them harder to trace. Especially for more sophisticated scams involving older people as victims, it can be difficult for them to remember details that may build a case.

Sometimes, a bank or credit union can step in when there's a questionable transfer. Jim Fuher, fraud prevention manager at Spokane Teachers Credit Union, says employees are regularly trained on what to look for in prevention fraud. One hint that someone may be a victim of a scam, he says, is when a person goes to cash a check with specific instructions of what to do with the cash. Employees will help victims file a police report, and go through other channels for financial recovery if they lost money.

"The hard part is, once those funds have left, they're very hard to recover because they can go anywhere in the world," Fuher says.

That's why STCU and other credit unions often try to warn people about scams. But it won't always work. Even when someone knows better, they can still be a victim.

Spokane Valley resident Barbara Schuller, 77, was the victim of a different kind of scam a couple of months ago. A scammer emailed her claiming to be from Microsoft; he told her she had been hacked. It was a tech support scam. She gave the scammer permission to access her computer. Fortunately, she realized what she'd done before the scammer was able to take any money. Still, she says she's embarrassed.

"You hear so many warnings about it. And then to fall for it, you feel ignorant," Schuller says. "I don't feel good about it."

SECRETS AND SHAME

Jill still hasn't told her kids how she was scammed. Months after sending a stranger money, she can't shake the feeling of embarrassment. And she fears what her kids will think of her if they ever find out:

"If they knew I did something like this, they would think I'm over the bend and I needed to be cared for. And I don't feel that way at all."

She reported what happened to the Washington Attorney General's Consumer Protection Division, though she doubts her scammer will be held accountable.

The financial hit was bearable. But emotionally, it's hit her harder. She says she looks at herself in the mirror and thinks, "What a total fool." She's an educated person, and knows there's no logical justification for what she did. People have tried to scam her before, and until now, she's always been able to tell when it's fake.

It's a feeling common among those who have been scammed: They're not likely to admit to others, and sometimes to themselves, that someone took advantage of them. So they keep it to themselves, hoping they'll be prepared for the next time the call comes.

"The fact that you might be able to have all that money, and not have to worry about anything anymore," Jill says, "is pretty addictive." ♦


TOP TEN SCAMS TO WATCH OUT FOR

Fake accident scam

The scammer claims they are a law enforcement officer. They say you have witnessed an accident, and that you failed to show up for court and now have a warrant for your arrest or you failed to pay fines. To get out of trouble, they ask send your personal information or money.

Lottery scam

A scammer tells you that you have won the lottery. They ask for money before they can give you the big prize.

Grandparent scam

The scammer poses as a relative in distress or someone representing that relative. The scammer says the relative is in trouble and they need you to wire them funds for lawyer fees, bail money or some other expense.

Sweetheart scam

You meet the scammer, often through an online dating service. They earn your trust, and you think you may be falling for them, even though you've likely never seen their face. Eventually they ask you for money.

IRS scam

A scammer claims to be with the Internal Revenue Service, complete with a fake name and fake badge number. They say you owe money and demand your bank account information.

Medicare/Social Security scam

A scammer calls and offers assistance with a new Medicare or Social Security card, but they ask for personal information to verify who you are.

Charity scam

A scammer claims to represent a charity and asks for a donation. This is often after a tragedy or natural disaster.

Tech support scam

A scammer claims to be a technology expert promising to help with any issue you may have. But first, they ask for access to your computer and/or personal information.

Home improvement scam

A scammer goes door-to-door offering quick, low-cost repairs to the home. They either take payments without returning, conduct poor work, or find fake problems that justify raising the cost.

Employment scam

A scammer convinced you that you can apply or you have been hired for a promising new job. Instead, they take your personal information.

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