After being targeted by a money laundering scheme via a private chat on Facebook, 71-year-old Edith Lomax was afraid to go online and go public alone.
The scam began about two years ago when a man claiming to be from California struck up a conversation with Lomax, who was grieving the recent loss of her fiancé. The two began a friendship. Then came the money demands.
“He always needed money,” Lomax said. “He was always sending me Steam cards, ‘Now go to the store, get me Steam cards, iTunes cards,’ and ‘I’m on an oil rig and I can’t walk,’ and sometimes it was like, ‘My kid is in the hospital and needs medicine” and things like that with a false history. A pathetic story.”
About two months after they spoke, Lomax, who lives in Colbert, Georgia, about 20 minutes from Athens, received a private message from her bank that an unauthorized user had attempted to use her debit card at a supermarket in shopping california .
The next day, she noticed an unusual withdrawal from her bank account to purchase Steam gift cards used to play video games at a CVS.
After Lomax went to the bank, she found that checks from bogus insurance companies from across the US had been deposited into her account, causing it to be overdrawn. The bank called police to the scene and reported the incident to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation because of her age.
Members of GBI Adult Protective Services determined that the man she was speaking to was likely from Nigeria, as while they were able to trace where the account came from, they could not trace it back to a specific person or address.
Lomax is not the only one who has fallen victim to these scams.
Anthony Glenum, an 84-year-old man from Athens, was scammed by a person who called his phone number and claimed to be a Bank of America representative.
They informed him that his debit card had been compromised and asked him to provide the card number, expiration date and security code, which he provided.
“He called me as soon as this happened, within about two minutes,” said April Jeter, Glenum’s caretaker. “I called the bank and they immediately canceled.”
A worrying trend
Elderly cheating is on the rise across the state, according to officials from the US Attorney for the Middle District of Georgia.
Older people are vulnerable to fraud because they have less understanding of how people use technology and communicate on online platforms, said Gaurav Sinha, an assistant professor in the University of Georgia’s School of Social Work.
The problem may become more complex as technology advances and personal data becomes more publicly available, Sinha said.
According to the National Council on Aging, there are five types of scams typically used to target the elderly. Government fraud involving identity theft occurs when people pretend to be from the IRS, Social Security Administration, or Medicare.
Sweepstakes scams involve scammers calling an older adult to tell them they have won a lottery or prize, and in order to claim their winnings, the older adult must send money, cash, or gift cards to cover the prize’s taxes and processing fees .
Technological scams include robocalls and phone scams. A common form of this is when someone calls and asks, “Can you hear me?” to the person who picks up the phone, and if the older person replies “Yes,” they record their voice and hang up.
The older person’s recording of the “yes” is then used as a voice signature to authorize charges. Computer tech support scams take advantage of elderly people’s lack of technological knowledge by placing a pop-up message or blank screen on their computer or phone, urging the victim to contact support because their device is damaged is.
The grandparent scam attracts the hearts of older adults by pretending to be one of their grandchildren. The scammer will ask if they know which grandchild is calling them, and if they can guess which grandchild it is, the scammer has gained their trust.
The scammer then demands money for an urgent issue like overdue rent or car repairs. They may ask that the grandparents not tell anyone and send money in the form of gift cards or a money order, which often means the money cannot be recovered from the victim.
According to an email from prosecutors, two common forms of cheating among elderly people they have seen are grandparent cheating and love cheating.
“‘Love scam’ is when a scammer poses as a love interest online and requests money for a visit or some other purpose,” prosecutors said in an email to The Red & Black.
A Federal Trade Commission report released Oct. 18 found that older adults lost significantly more money to investment fraud, business impersonation fraud, and government impersonation fraud in 2021 than they did in 2020.
Last year’s FTC report found that adults over 60 are almost five times more likely than younger consumers to lose money to tech support scams. It has also been found that older adults are more than twice as likely to lose money from sweepstakes scams and 45% more likely to lose money from family or friend scams.
Sinha examined the effects of scams on the elderly while examining clients at the Elder Financial Justice Clinic, the country’s first legal clinic focused solely on providing free services specifically for elderly victims of financial exploitation.
“These are very important issues, your cognitive decline, your familiarity with technology, your understanding of how people speak,” Sinha said. “So all of this works in favor of exploitation [older] Adult.”
Shame and victim-blaming are factors that discourage older people from seeking help when affected by these scams, according to Sinha.
Victims living in small towns may be afraid to challenge a scammer if it’s someone well known in their community. They may also have trouble overcoming other barriers in their city.
“People in this neighborhood are not helping you due to various structural and systemic issues,” Sinha said. “They don’t support you even though you’ve had some issues with the resources you’re trying to access. It could be anything, it could be a race-based thing, like you live in a neighborhood that’s racially one-two dominated [racial groups] and not with the others. And then sometimes the local government doesn’t support them to help them.”
Sinha said the biggest legal obstacle faced by elderly fraud victims is the lack of legal services.
“The legal aid offices are overwhelmed with cases,” Sinha said. “These are important cases, but there are more important cases like elder abuse, like physical abuse, mental abuse – all those cases take precedence over some of the smaller financial abuse cases.”
The US Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of Georgia is one of 20 offices of the Transnational Elder Fraud Strike Force, which it joined on October 4.
Established in 2019, the Strike Force is comprised of members of the Department of Justice’s Consumer Protection Division, 20 US Attorneys, the Federal Bureau of Investigations, the US Postal Inspection Service and Homeland Security Investigations. Lawyers and analysts at these institutions identify older scams and prosecute the perpetrators.
“The primary objective will remain the pursuit of federal investigations and prosecutions against bad actors who target senior citizens for the purpose of fraud,” prosecutors said in an email. “But society cannot simply work its way out of a complex problem. Our office works closely with our federal, state, and local law enforcement partners to educate citizens directly throughout the year about the different types of fraud, tips on how to avoid becoming a victim, and how you can report if you or a loved one is a victim of elder fraud.”
The FTC is involved in several outreach and education efforts, including the “Pass It On Education” campaign, which distributes resources such as factsheets, bookmarks, videos, and presentations that older people can “pass on” to their family and friends.
Since beginning in 2014, Pass It On has updated its materials to cover 13 topics including home repair scams and charity scams.
Lomax said an officer from GBI Adult Protective Services visited her six months after she found out she was being scammed to educate her on safe practices.
“I would advise that nobody goes online with people they don’t know because it’s just a bad situation,” Lomax said.
Lt. Shaun Barnett of the Athens-Clarke County Police Department said he advises people affected by grandparent fraud to contact their family member, who the caller claims is in trouble.
“All I would say is that we — the police in general — are not going to call and ask for money to bail anyone out,” Barnett said.
Sinha encourages nonprofits to take an active role in educating the elderly and making people more understanding of the victims.
“You build financial capacity and then tell them you’re not alone and you’re the victim,” Sinha said. “But you haven’t done anything wrong and you should reach out to people who might be able to help you.”