In case anyone was doubting whether or not we have a senior scam crisis on our hands, those doubts quickly subsided when the United States Special Committee on Aging met recently.
The "Fraud, Scams and COVID-19 hearing took place September 23rd, and the members and experts discussed "How Con Artists Have Targeted Older Americans During the Pandemic." The Chairman of the committee, U.S. Senator Bob Casey, stated at the opening what American Senior Alliance has discussed on many occasions in our Blog posts and Podcasts that the pandemic left seniors vulnerable to fraud and scams.
Senator Casey was right on target when he said, "In the early days of the pandemic, many seniors isolated themselves to avoid contracting the virus, but in the process they were cut off from family, and friends that resulted from the pandemic. Fraudsters saw this as an opportunity and they pounced. They preyed on the fear and uncertainty of the disease as well as the isolation and loneliness created by the pandemic."
Sadly, during this time older Americans were stuck at home by themselves sometimes for days, weeks, and even months. This resulted in seniors living alone desperately wanting to have a conversation with almost anyone. When the phone rang, they would answer it leaping at the opportunity to talk with a friendly voice over the telephone or engage with a warm greeting on Facebook. Without regular contact with family, Senator Casey said, "this was the time when scams would balloon into large scams."
Ranking Member, Senator Tim Scott shared statistics for scams affecting older adults and is searching for solutions to prevent the fraudsters and scammers from taking advantage of seniors. The grandparent scam has grown exponentially over the last year with seniors suffering losses of $304 million in 2020. These figures are up 50 percent from 2009. In Senator Scott's home state of South Carolina, he reported 250 residents fell victim to the dreaded romance scam. The FBI Internet Crime Complaint Center received 791,000 complaints in 2020 and 28 percent of those were victims 60 and over amounting to $1 billion in losses.
Vee Daniel, CEO of the Upstate South Carolina Better Business Bureau, said in her role that educating seniors was the best way to protect them from fraud. In 2015, the BBB created the Savvy Seniors program to help fight senior fraud. Ms. Daniel reported, "new scams that involve masks, non-FDA approved medical supplies, immunity-boosting products, and equipment through online purchase scams related to COVID-19 have made the rounds throughout the pandemic. We have seen fake website phishing emails that involved stimulus checks, price gouging, scammers impersonating government agencies like Medicare, and promoting fake vaccines."
Interesting data shared by Lois Greisman, Associate Director of the Federal Trade Commission showed the scams that reported the highest aggregate losses by older Americans in 2020 were the romance scam, prize, sweepstakes, and lottery scams, and business impersonator scams. The romance scam seemed to increase dramatically in 2020 to $139 million, up from $84 million in 2019. The prize, sweepstakes, and lottery scams were next in line with seniors losing $69 million in 2020. Another scam that hit older adults hard in 2020 was the business impostor scam raking in $65 million, up from $34 million in 2019.
A powerful story was shared by a Pennsylvania romance scam victim, Kate Kleinert. Ms. Kleinert received a Facebook friend request from a scam artist who claimed to be a surgeon working in Iraq. The two developed a relationship and it progressed where the couple planned to get married. Sadly, after the fraudster used every clever tactic imaginable, Ms. Kleinert was swindled out of $39,000, all of her savings, and eventually had to move in with her sister.
Senator Rick Scott asked Ms. Kleinert what advice would she give others. Ms. Kleinert, an educating seniors advocate said, "I think there needs to be a pamphlet or brochure with stats and warning signs and put into the shopping bag when buying gift cards. Kleinert added, "There has to be more education out there that is visible to seniors."
Listening to committee members, experts, and victims, educating seniors about these crimes is vital. To help educate older Americans about these scams, the committee drafted a comprehensive Fraud Book in 2013 and it is updated annually. The book provides excellent tips to help seniors avoid being scammed. In addition to the fraud book, the committee established a toll-free Fraud hotline 855-303-9470 to make it easier for older adults to report suspected fraud and receive assistance.