Internet crime skyrocketed by 69 percent last year, and the elderly and disabled were one of the prime targets for these reported scams, which, according to the FBI, raked in more than $4.1 billion.
As a caregiver, protecting your loved one from online financial attacks can be a challenge, because the predators prey on their vulnerabilities, according to Debbie Deem, a retired FBI Victim Specialist and current Financial Abuse Specialist Team (FAST) Coordinator for Ventura County.
Romance scams, which cause some of the highest losses, generally begin with the perpetrator impersonating someone via a false profile on Facebook or another website. The thief then proceeds to “love bomb” a lonely victim by showering them with attention, which evolves into requests for money based on lies designed to make the victim believe they are giving money to a worthy cause.
“Through a series of days, weeks, and years, they will take every penny,” Deem said. “We have had suicides. Sometimes the victims think they’re doing this great thing and unfortunately, they’re money laundering,” so they are unknowingly breaking the law.
The perpetrators know their victims’ bank assets, home ownership, and credit card availability and tap into that knowledge. They may call repeatedly each day, send flowers using stolen credit cards, and attempt to isolate their target from family and friends.
“These crimes are devastating,” Deem said. “Caregivers of these chronic victims—become so fed up, because they can’t stop them. They can’t protect their loved ones from these scammers because they have access to them 24 hours a day.”
Deem said victims sometimes know they are being scammed, but will continue contact because their loneliness is so intense. Many of the crimes are transnational, so they are challenging to prosecute, and each day the variety of schemes increases. There are lottery scams asking a victim to pay money to receive winnings and tech support scams that create chronic victims who dole out money to ‘safeguard’ their computers. The scammers may impersonate reputable companies to gain their victims’ trust.
Victims with cognitive decline may not even remember that they already paid the perpetrator $20,000 and send the money a second or third time.
So what can you do to protect your loved one? According to Deem, your strategy must be multi-faceted—not only targeting the crime, but also addressing the underlying reasons that your loved one has become vulnerable. Here are some tips and resources to help you.
1) Screen Calls, Texts, and Emails
Advise your loved one not to answer calls, texts, or emails from people they don’t know. If they receive a voice mail or message from a “company,” tell them not to call or answer the provided phone number or email address. If they inadvertently answer such a call, tell them it’s okay to hang up the phone. Then, contact the company directly by using a number from their website or a received bill to not only ascertain that the contact was a scam, but also to report the offense.
2) Be Patient
Victims are not stupid. Attorneys, doctors, and bankers can become victims to these scams, and a lecture will not solve the problem. Blame and guilt-inducing tactics are likely to encourage a victim to hide instead of confide the details of a scam, which will only exacerbate the problems by distancing you from your loved one. With all scams, but romance scams in particular, it’s important to be patient and ally yourself with your loved one. Try to figure out the problem together. “Try to give them enough information and time to process it. It took them time to get into this, and it may take them time to get out,” Deem said.
3) Reorient Your Loved One
Victims may be facing a variety of challenges that are making them vulnerable to scams. A 90-year-old may be lonely and desperate for intimacy and connection, or a grandparent may have too many unfilled hours in their day. Search out resources to address these needs. For example, covia.org and dorotusa.org connect seniors to a variety of resources, such as weekly phone calls, while cyberseniors.org provides technology support and training. Community colleges and senior centers can also be helpful resources.
4) Report, Report, Report
If your loved one has been victimized, report it at multiple places. Start with the local police and Adult Protective Services, who may or may not be helpful, but don’t stop there. If the victim is over 60 years old, call the National Elder Fraud Hotline ((833) 373-8311) or visit their website. In addition, file a complaint on the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center (www.ic3.gov), and also report the fraud at the Federal Trade Commission—reportfraud.ftc.gov.
As you face this challenge, the Identity Theft Resource Center (idtheftcenter.org) may be helpful to consult, and the online Baker Fraud Report can also provide helpful information on scams. In addition, Deem also can provide assistance. If you have any questions or confusions, reach out to her at email@example.com.
Remember you’re not alone in facing this problem, and there are many people who want to help you and are on your side.
Thank you for reading, please share with a friend, and be well. —KK
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