Impersonation and romance scams target local seniors

By Zane Turner | Living 50 Plus

Impersonation scams and other types of fraud targeting older residents have become a problem, Decatur police say, and one scheme cost a local senior $150,000.

Michael Ferguson has been a detective in the Decatur Police Department’s financial crimes unit for six years and said he sees people lose money from scams “more often than I like to admit.”

Ferguson said he gets reports of 100-plus financial scams a year and most of the victims he’s involved with are elderly.

“One of the main things is a ‘family member in trouble’ scam. They will literally impersonate a family member — grandson, nephew, something like that — saying, ‘They have been involved in a car wreck, the person is injured, they need several thousand dollars for an attorney. The judge really likes them. All they have to do is pay this money,’” Ferguson said.

“These dirtbags will literally come to their home — and this has happened here — pick the money up in an envelope and leave with it.”

He said the impersonation scams are a national problem that also affect the Decatur area.

Tricia Pruitt, regional vice president of the Better Business Bureau, said she most often sees impersonation scams and that “most scams try to create fear and urgency.”

“The biggest things we see right now are impersonation scams, around 90% of scams are impersonating someone or somebody,” Pruitt said. “Young people still fall for scams the most, but older Americans are losing the most money.”

She recalled one local story in which a scammer used artificial intelligence to re-create a family member’s voice and ask for money. She said the only way the receiver of the call knew it was fake was by texting that person and getting confirmation it was a scammer. Pruitt encourages everyone to do that if someone calls asking for money.

Even though she sees mostly impersonation scams, she said she has seen the most money being lost in romance scams.

A scammer will “talk to the person for hours every day to get their trust. Something will always happen and they can’t meet,” said Pruitt. “A lot of the time they have already sent money before a family member or bank catches it.”

Pruitt said an elderly Decatur woman was a part of a romance scam that went on so long that it left the woman in financial turmoil and ended up being a reason she lost her business.

She said the Better Business Bureau encourages people to use private settings on their social media accounts to limit information scammers can use against someone.

Ferguson said scammers can keep relationships “going for a long time. The pictures they are using are of a real person, it’s just not who they’re talking to. They are very demanding, they always want more. A lot of times I have seen it where there is an exchange of three or four texts and the person is instantly like ‘I love you, I want to be with you.’ A lot of times with these older people they lose their spouse or something like that and they get lonely. These scammers will take advantage of that,” Ferguson said.

He said one early warning sign that someone may be up to no good is use of incorrect grammar or spelling because some scammers come from non-English-speaking countries. He also said to not buy prepaid gift cards requested remotely because those are untraceable and many times related to scams.

Beware of pop-ups

Pop-up messages on a home computer can also be a snake waiting in the grass for non-tech-savvy users, according to Ferguson.

The pop-up message might tell the user that the computer has a virus and provide a phone number to call for resolving the problem.

“Then they convince them to download some type of ‘Teamviewer’ or ‘Anydesk.’ I recommend never downloading those,” Ferguson said. “They say, ‘We are trying to remove this virus. All we need is payment through a prepaid gift card,’ and once that happens, it’s done.”

Ferguson said he recently investigated a case of a computer virus scam where an elderly man lost $150,000 and was going to lose another $50,000 before his bank stopped him. Ferguson said he cautions people to not call numbers they see on pop-up ads, and to take their computers to a local business if they believe they have a virus. He also says scammers can impersonate banks and that if someone receives a text or call from their bank, hang up and call that bank to ensure security.

Ferguson believes the vast majority of cases where money is lost in scams are not even reported. He said he believes that embarrassment can play a role, but he encourages those that are scammed to report it to their financial institution, then the police. He said if the scam involves a wire transfer and authorities act fast enough they can return the money, but most of the time “that money is gone,” Ferguson said.

He said there is usually no path toward reimbursement once a person is scammed out of their money because of overseas transfers and the complexity of the scams.

Pruitt said she also sees insurance scams, cryptocurrency scams and investment scams. She said in order to combat these scams, hang up the phone and call the person the potential scammer represented himself or herself to be. She also said don’t take the word of a random contact about financial products unless you are an expert in that area. She said she has seen entire churches get wrapped up in investment scams due to believing scammers.

Targeting seniors

Andrea Hunt, associate professor of sociology at the University of North Alabama, said there are multiple reasons elderly people are targeted in scams.

“There might be a perception of vulnerability. Whether this is real or not, there are often these stereotypes as they are aging. There is also some perception that people who are older have more money, more savings, they may have a retirement plan, they’ve had a longer time to accumulate wealth,” said Hunt.

She said that perception of vulnerability can come because many older people are socially isolated or lack a support network. She said older generations also can be more trusting, which opens them up to these scams.

“Older adults are more likely to face identity theft or phishing attempts because they are interacting a lot with medical providers, government agencies through maybe Medicare and these areas are susceptible to security breaches,” Hunt said.

She said she encourages people not to act quickly, to take time and look at things before a decision is made. She encourages those that are scammed to contact the police and make a report because it’s unlikely the scam is an isolated incident and other people could be affected as well.

According to the Federal Trade Commission, 43% of people who reported losing money to fraud in 2022 were between the ages of 20 and 29, while only 23% were between ages of 70 and 79. However, the data also shows that when people do have losses from fraud, elderly people lose the most money. People in their 20s lose on average $548 per loss, but people in their 70s lose almost double that, at $1,000, and people above their 70s lose the most money with $1,754 per loss.

In 2022, 5.3 million Americans reported fraud, totaling $2.7 billion in losses. One in five people who were victims of imposter scams reported lost money.