After being targeted in a money-laundering scheme through a private chat on Facebook, 71-year-old Edith Lomax was scared to be active online and go out in public by herself.
The scam began about two years ago when a man claiming to be from California started a conversation with Lomax, who was grieving the recent loss of her fiancé. The two began a friendship. Then came the money requests.
“He was always needing money,” Lomax said. “He was always sending me Steam cards ‘Go to the store now, get me Steam cards, iTunes cards,’ and ‘I’m on an oil rig, and I can’t leave,’ and sometimes it was like, ‘My child is in the hospital and she needs medicine’ and stuff like that with a fake story. A pitiful story.”
About two months after they started talking, Lomax, who lives in Colbert, Georgia, located about 20 minutes from Athens, received a private message from her bank that an unauthorized user tried to make a purchase with her debit card at a convenience store in California.
The next day, she noticed an unfamiliar withdrawal from her bank account to purchase Steam gift cards, which are used to play video games, at a CVS.
After going to the bank, Lomax found that checks from fake insurance companies from across the U.S. had been posted to her account, leaving it overdrawn. The bank called police to the scene and reported the incident to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation because of her age.
Members of the GBI Adult Protective Services found that the man she was conversing with was likely from Nigeria, as they were able to trace where the account was from but were unable to trace it back to a specific person or address.
Lomax isn’t 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 representative at Bank of America.
They informed him his debit card had been compromised and asked him to provide the card’s number, expiration date and security code, which he gave.
“He called me as soon as this happened, like within two minutes,” said April Jeter, Glenum’s caretaker. “I called the bank and they canceled it immediately.”
A concerning trend
Fraud targeting older people is on the rise across the state, according to representatives from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of Georgia.
Older people are vulnerable targets for fraud because they are less likely to understand how people use technology and communicate on online platforms, said Gaurav Sinha, an assistant professor at the University of Georgia’s School of Social Work.
The issue has the potential to grow more complex as technology develops and personal data becomes more publicly available, Sinha said.
According to the National Council on Aging, there are five types of scams that are typically used to target older people. Government impersonation scams occur when people pretend to be from the IRS, Social Security Administration or Medicare.
For sweepstakes scams, scammers will call an older adult to tell them they’ve won a lottery or prize and to claim their winnings, the older adult must send money, cash or gift cards to cover the taxes and processing fees on the prize.
Technology scams include robocalls and phone scams. A common form of this is someone calling and asking “Can you hear me?” to the person who picks up the phone and when the older person answers “yes,” they record their voice and hang up.
The recording of the older person saying “yes” is then used as a voice signature to authorize charges. Computer tech support scams exploit older people’s lack of technological knowledge by putting a pop-up message or blank screen on their computer or phone that tells the victim to contact support because their device is damaged.
The grandparent scam pulls on older adults’ heartstrings by pretending to be one of their grandchildren. The scammer will ask if they know which grandchild is calling them and when they guess which grandchild it is, the scammer has gained their trust.
The scammer will then ask for money for an urgent issue such as overdue rent or car repairs. They may ask that the grandparent doesn’t tell anyone about it and send money in the form of gift cards or a money transfer, which often means the money can’t be recovered by the victim.
According to an email from the Attorney’s Office, two common forms of elder fraud they’ve seen include grandparent scams and romance scams.
“‘Romance scams’ are when a fraudster poses as an online love interest and requests funds for a visit or for another purpose,” said representatives from the Attorney’s Office in an email to The Red & Black.
A report that the Federal Trade Commission released on Oct. 18 found that older adults lost significantly more money in investment scams, business impersonation scams and government impersonation scams in 2021 than they did in 2020.
Last year’s FTC report found that adults over 60 were nearly five times more likely than younger consumers to lose money in tech support scams. It also found that older adults were more than twice as likely to lose money in sweepstakes scams and 45% more likely to lose money in a family or friends impersonation scam.
Sinha studied the effects of elder fraud while evaluating clients of the Elder Financial Justice Clinic, the first law school legal clinic in the country solely focused on providing free services specific to older victims of financial exploitation.
“These are very important issues, your cognitive decline, your familiarity with the technology, your understanding of the way people speak,” Sinha said. “So all these work in favor of exploiting [older] adults.”
Shame and victim blaming are both factors that prevent older people from seeking help when affected by these scams, according to Sinha.
For victims living in small towns, they may fear challenging a scammer if it’s someone who is well-known in their community. They may also have difficulty overcoming other barriers in their town.
“People in that neighborhood, because of various structural and systemic issues, they don’t help you,” Sinha said. “They don’t support you, even though you had some issues with the resources that you would like to access. It could be anything, it could be a race-based thing, like you live in a neighborhood, which is racially dominated by one, two [racial groups] and not with the others. And then the local government, they are not supportive of helping them sometimes.”
Sinha said that the biggest legal barrier for elder fraud victims is a lack of legal services.
“The offices of legal aid, they 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 receive priority over some of the smaller cases of financial abuse.”
The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of Georgia is one of 20 offices in the Transnational Elder Fraud Strike Force, which it joined on Oct. 4.
Created in 2019, the Strike Force is composed of members from the Department of Justice’s Consumer Protection Branch, 20 U.S. Attorneys’ Offices, the Federal Bureau of Investigations, U.S. Postal Inspection Service and Homeland Security Investigations. Lawyers and analysts from these institutions identify elder fraud scams and prosecute perpetrators.
“The primary goal will continue to be pursuing federal investigations and prosecution against bad actors targeting elder citizens for purposes of fraud,” said the Attorney’s Office in an email. “But, society can’t simply prosecute its way out of a complex problem. Our office works closely with our federal, state and local law enforcement partners to provide education throughout the year directly to citizens on the various types of scams, tips to avoid becoming a victim and how to report when you or a loved one has been the victim of elder fraud.”
The FTC engages in multiple outreach and education efforts, including the Pass It On Education campaign, which distributes resources, such as fact sheets, bookmarks, videos and presentations, for older people to “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 fraud.
Lomax said that an officer with 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 go online with people that 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 individuals affected by grandparent scams to get in contact with their family member that the caller is claiming is in trouble.
“I would just say, we — the police in general — are not going to be calling and asking for money to help get somebody out of trouble,” Barnett said.
Sinha encourages nonprofit organizations to be proactive in educating older people, and for people to have more understanding toward victims.
“You build financial capacity, and then tell them that you are not alone, and you are the victim,” Sinha said. “But you haven’t done anything wrong, and you should reach out to people who could help you.”