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Fears, willingness to help make seniors appealing targets for scams

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PHOENIX – Told he had won $10 million in a sweepstakes, an older man insisted that he was going to Florida to collect despite objections from his family and even an explanation from the Arizona Attorney General’s Office that he was being scammed.

Similar to the plot of the current movie release “Nebraska,” in which an aging man travels from Montana to Nebraska in pursuit of $1 million promised in a scam, it’s the kind of thing that Stewart Grabel sees regularly as ombudsman for the Pima Council on the Aging.

Like many older people, this Pima County man was too willing to believe that those offering the prize were telling the truth.

“He said, “Ed McMahon wouldn’t lie to me,’” Grabel said.

With 20 percent of Arizonans forecast to be 65 or older by 2020, many more residents will be part of a demographic increasingly preyed upon by scams taking advantage seniors’ of fears, such as facing poverty or losing medical coverage, and their willingness to help others, such as giving money to those pretending to be relatives in trouble.

“I have clients that tell me, ‘I looked him in the eye and shook his hand, and I knew he was an honest guy,’” Grabel said. “And he wasn’t an honest guy.”

State Sen. Steve Farley, D-Tucson, said Arizona needs to do more to protect this vulnerable population.

“There’s a lot of potential abuse that can happen financially in the system here in Arizona with the population of seniors we have,” he said.

Dot Esler, senior program manager for senior impact strategies at the United Way of Tucson and Southern Arizona, said seniors are also more susceptible to scams because they spend more time at home, making them available for phone calls and in-person pitches. When someone is socially isolated, he or she can be even more vulnerable, Esler said.

“They may be making the decision based on an emotional reaction that if they had an opportunity to talk to somebody else, they might be able to see through that it was a scam or a fraud,” she said.

Kathleen Waldron, professor at Arizona State University’s New College, said the embarrassment might also lead seniors to not report that they have been scammed.

“That embarrassment factor can also cause them not to want to tell anyone what’s happened, which can then cause more stress,” she said.

Miranda Garcia, a Phoenix-based inspector for the U.S. Postal Service, said that mail fraud is traditionally underreported because of the embarrassment factor.

“They don’t want their family members or friends to know that they’ve been “duped” or lost money,” she said.

Kathleen Winn, the Arizona Attorney General’s Office’s community outreach director, said business and investment scams are popular in Arizona because many seniors are on fixed incomes. When seniors investors don’t make money, the scam artists will try to sell them more investments with promises of returns, she said.

While the Attorney General’s Office does a good job taking down these businesses, new ones quickly sprout, Winn said.

“It’s like Whac-a-Mole,” she said.

Garcia, the postal inspector, said foreign lotteries and sweepstakes scams are the most common scams committed by mail, adding that scammers will victimize a person again and again once they find success.

“Unfortunately, if a victim does fall for one of these scams – let’s say it’s a foreign lottery or a sweepstakes-type deal – they’re name is put on a list and is essentially sent out to all these other scammers,” she said.

Glen Spencer, program director for benefits assistance with the Area Agency on Aging in Phoenix, said scammers now use the Affordable Care Act as a way to obtain a senior citizen’s personal information, threatening tax penalties someone doesn’t provide a Social Security number, for example.

“Thieves and criminals are playing on that fear factor with vulnerable populations that sometimes aren’t as capable of discerning truth from fiction because of advanced age or illness,” he said.

The so-called granny scam, in which someone posing as a grandchild calls or emails to say he or she is in trouble in a foreign country and needs money, is another popular method of preying on the elderly, Spencer said.

“People have to be wary about these things, and usually if they pick up the phone and call the individual, they find that they’re right where they’re supposed to be – in their own safe neck of the woods in the United States and not travelling and not in need or emergency funds,” he said

Farley, the Tucson lawmaker, authored unsuccessful bills during the past two legislative sessions that aimed to prevent financial exploitation of senior citizens. They would have required financial institutions to report suspicious activity, like withdrawals and wire transfers to Nigeria, to the Attorney General’s Office.

“There are people who are out there who are unfortunately predatory upon seniors who see them as being vulnerable, which they are,” Farley said. “Instead of protecting that vulnerability, they take advantage of the vulnerability. And that’s something that we have to crack down upon.”

Melanie Starns, assistant director of the Arizona Department of Economic Security’s Division of Aging and Adult Services, said educating seniors is an important part of cutting down on scams. Her agency and others, including the Arizona Attorney General’s Office, hold an annual Scam Jam that includes education on the latest scams and identity theft.

“It’s a whole thing to educate the community – to educate older adults – about what’s out there and how to protect themselves,” Starns said.

David Mitchell, Arizona AARP’s senior state director, said the AARP is launching a pilot program, the Fraud Watch Network (, to inform individuals about new scams and frauds through email alerts.

“The thieves are pretty smart. They try to get out there and take advantage any kind of a situation,” he said.

The Fraud Watch Network is designed to not only protect participants but inform others about new scams through word of mouth, Mitchell said.

“Empower the individual and create a desire in that individual to share that information with their friends and loved ones,” he said.

Tina Dannenfelser, program administrator for Adult Protective Services, part of the state Department of Economic Security, said that even with education some seniors will believe in a scam.

“We have seniors that have sent literally tens of thousands of dollars to the lotteries,” she said. “Doesn’t matter how many pamphlets we take them, doesn’t matter how many times we tell them it’s a scam. They continue to believe that they are going to be getting that money.”

Waldron, the ASU professor, said families should prepare for the possibility that elderly family members may lose their cognitive abilities and become vulnerable to scams.

“Those are conversations people need to have in their families before these things become an issue,” she said. “But families don’t like to talk those things.”

Robert Schneiderman, a Scottsdale resident whose father was a victim of financial exploitation in California, families should have plans for children to eventually assume control of their parents’ finances, even if it requires some difficult conversations.

“Knowing that your family is protected – I don’t just mean financially protected, but legally protected – from outside intrusion should make a family feel good,” he said.