Protecting your parents from senior scams

Mary and Wally Murray were victims of the “granny scam.”

Bob Segall/13 Investigates

Every day, thousands of seniors get ripped off. Many of the scams are clever, devious and downright shocking, and the toll reaches billions of dollars each year. Think it won't happen to your family? That's what investigative reporter Bob Segall used to think … until it happened to his own mother. 13 Investigates shows you how scam artists are targeting seniors and how to help protect your parents and grandparents from becoming victims, too.

The Granny Scam

Mary and Wally Murray are grandparents. They are kind, generous and trusting. They are everything scam artists are looking for.

"We never thought about being scammed. Never, never," Wally said, shaking his head.

"And they really cleaned us out," added Mary. "We had no idea there was anything such as a grandparent scam going on at all."

The "grandparent scam" or "granny scam" that targeted the Murrays – and thousands of other seniors – begins with a phone call.

"When I answered the phone it was my grandson. I said 'How are you?' and he said 'Well, Grandma, I'm in a little bit of trouble,'" Mary explained.

The young man on the phone told Mary and Wally he had been in a serious car accident in Canada and needed thousands of dollars to pay for hospital and legal bills.

"He said, 'Grandpa, I've got the money. I'll pay you when I get home. I just need to get home,'" Wally recalls. "So I said 'We'll do it. I'll send you the money.'"

The Murrays went right to Western Union and wired $6,000 cash. The couple later learned the man on the phone was not their grandson.

"There was no doubt in our minds that it was our grandson. His voice was exactly the same," said Mary. "Whoever it was really did their homework. They had our telephone number, they knew our grandson's name. They knew his wife's name. They knew we were his grandparents. Seniors need to be warned about this all over the country."

Including wire fees, the Murrays lost $6,290 in retirement savings they had been counting on. Many seniors lose a lot more.

Scammed for $262,000

Ali Javadi, 74, is a successful businessman now diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. While Ali is retired, he is still active on his home computer, and that's what got him into some big trouble.

"My dad had fallen for an internet scam," said Ali's son, Afshin. "My family and I realized every dime [he] had had disappeared."

Ali received an e-mail that said he was entitled to $20,500,000 from a business transaction in South Africa. To get the windfall, all he had to do was send money for clearance certificates, taxes and collection fees. He didn't realize it was a scam, so Ali sent the payments. Each time he sent money, he was notified of an additional charge. By the time his family realized what was happening, Ali had sent more than a quarter million dollars to conmen in South Africa - and got nothing in return. He got the money by taking out a new bank loan on his home.

"Everyone was in a state of shock. We didn't know what to do," said Afshin, who believes Parkinson's medications blurred his father's judgment, making him more vulnerable and an ideal target. "It took him a while actually to understand what was going on. That was the sad part."

Internet scams are rampant. 13 Investigates' Bob Segall reports he received 266 scam offers via e-mail in the past ten weeks. (He usually deletes them immediately, but began saving the messages in August for this report.) That's more than two dozen bogus offers per week from scam artists looking to cash in!

The offers sent to Segall's personal e-mail account promise winnings or proceeds ranging from $100,000 to $55 million in exchange for sending money or providing personal information such as bank account numbers, credit card numbers, a social security number, address, and/or phone number. Many appear to come from legitimate companies, organizations or government agencies such as Western Union, the U.S. Government Accountability Office, Exxon Mobil, Google, the United Nations and Yahoo. But they are all scams, and thousands of people – especially seniors – fall for them each month.

"Some of these things look very real and the elderly are exploited to a point where some lose their life savings," said Lt. Jeff Duhamell of the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department. "We constantly have to be vigilant to help them. It's a generation that trusts people, and these scam artists come in and they're very good at what they do."

Afshin Javadi agrees, and he believes seniors can benefit greatly by frequent warnings and reminders about the dangers of the internet.

"In the old days, people believed what they read in print. Nowadays, those who are not savvy with the internet still tend to believe what they read in an e-mail," he said. "I think it's great for the elderly to be able to surf the internet and send e-mails, but if it goes unmonitored, eventually [some are] going to fall for a scam."

Most internet scams originate overseas, making it very difficult for local authorities to pursue the criminals.

But others schemes target seniors in their own front yard.

Scams close to home

Last year, Indianapolis police arrested a group of five people for scamming an 82-year-old great grandmother.

Members of the group visited Marjori Denien repeatedly over the course of several years, claiming they were trimming trees, spraying bushes and fertilizing her lawn.

According to a police report, one of the suspects admitted "no work was done … and that she knew they were running a scam."

Marjori, who is suffering from dementia, didn't realize that and paid more than $5,000 for lawn services never received.

"She can't remember a lot of things that go on, and these people really took advantage of that," said Marjori's son, John. "They'd wait until midday when they knew my mother was here by herself. It was easy money … and in my opinion, ripping off the elderly is one of the lowest things you can do."

In recent years, seniors in Indianapolis have been targeted by other home improvement schemes involving contractors who show up at the front door offering to repair roofs, seal driveways or replace windows. In each case, the conmen took deposits and never returned to perform the work.

Healthcare scams

"It's just a very easy white collar crime, and it's happening so often," said Tamra Simpson, program director for the Senior Medicare Patrol.

Simpson monitors reported fraud cases against seniors. She says the most widespread crime is in the area of healthcare where, every year, Medicare is billed for $60 billion dollars in bogus services. It's not just seniors who are paying for it.

"It's the taxpayer. It's all of us," Simpson said.

Some of the waste is attributed to overbilling and mistakes by doctors offices, clinics, hospitals and insurance companies. Medicare officials say families who closely monitor healthcare invoices and Medicare statements can help prevent billions in overspending by reporting the errors.

But much of the fraud is intentional.

This summer, Senior Medicare Patrol was inundated with phone calls from seniors reporting a scam involving diabetic supplies. Thousands of seniors received phone calls from an unidentified individual or company claiming to be associated with Medicare. The callers offered free diabetic testing monitors and other supplies, and they knew the name of the seniors' doctors and tried to coax victims to provide their Medicare billing numbers.

"That is a scam," Simpson said. "One thing is for sure. Medicare is never going to call you and ask you for your Medicare number because they already have it. If they're asking for personal information like your banking information, your social security number, your Medicare number, things you hold sacred and wouldn't want a stranger getting ahold of, those are red flags.

She believes seniors continue to be targeted because the scams are working – despite attempts to warn the public.

"I hear of new scams every day. I just wish more people were not giving out their personal information. You hear it over and over and over again, but still, so often people still do it," Simpson said.

The most devious criminals target their victims when they are most vulnerable.

On death's (front) door

Earlier this year on the south side of Indianapolis, an 87-year-old widow was ripped off on her front porch. Her husband's obituary had just appeared in the Indianapolis Star, prompting a scam artist to show up at her door. He claimed to be with VISA and said he needed to take back the dead man's credit card. Once she handed over the card, it was promptly used to purchase a big screen TV.

"He basically took the card and went on a shopping spree," said Duhamell. "When you see this happen to an 87-year-old lady who just recently lost her husband, that's hard to swallow, but criminals like that don't really care. They just want cash and whoever they hurt – whether it be the elderly, the young or in between – they don't care. Your mother or grandmother can become a victim tomorrow."

And, yes, it can even happen to the mother of an investigative reporter.

Segall's mother, Pearl, was scammed out of $13,000.

It happened at a hospital in Scottsdale, Ariz., while she was in the intensive care unit.

"I don't remember a lot for about ten days while I was in there," said Pearl, who was admitted to the hospital for a serious infection. "I remember being told afterwards the doctors did not expect me to pull through."

When she recovered, Pearl noticed big charges on her credit card bill -- charges made while she was unconscious in a hospital bed.

"The amount was ridiculous and it wasn't me or dad that had put all those charges on the account," she said. "We were absolutely mortified."

Police soon discovered the same thing had happened to other seniors who were patients at the same hospital. Their investigation revealed someone had been preying on sick seniors, and it was an inside job.

"She was a phlebotomist, would come in the hospital room at night and she would actually take the credit cards," said Sgt. Mark Clark, public information officer for the Scottsdale Police Department. "There were 12 confirmed victims and I wouldn't be surprised if there were actually more. You would think you're in a safe place when you're in a hospital, but the fact is in today's society, you can become a victim anywhere."

Catching the criminals

The phlebotomist, 42-year-old Sylvia Cubit, is now serving 18 months in an Arizona prison.

Several of the landscapers who targeted Marjori Denien spent time behind bars, too.

And Afshin Javadi has spent years working with the U.S. Secret Service and authorities in South Africa to help identify the people who scammed $262,000 from his father. One suspect has already pleaded guilty and three others are expected to face trial next year as their cases drag slowly through the criminal justice system in Johannesburg.

Police admit these cases are the exception, rather than the rule. Most of the people responsible for scamming seniors are not caught.

"Some of the crimes are shocking, really, but they can be very difficult for police," Clark said. "It's not easy to follow the trail."

Scams originating in foreign countries are especially challenging for police, because they take far more time and manpower for departments already facing limited resources. The added distance provides greater anonymity and less chance of getting caught.

"The perpetrators and scam artists are usually going to get away with the scam because they always hide behind a series of false identities … so you never know who you're dealing with," Afshin said.

Making things right

While many victims will never see any of their money returned, others can get refunds. Knowing what to do – and not to do – is important when a scam is discovered.

The Murrays were told there was nothing they could do. They didn't believe it, and refused to stop fighting.

After repeated letters and phone calls to Western Union, the couple recently received a full refund of their $6,290. The company has been criticized for not doing enough to warn and protect seniors from scams involving wire transfers – despite a 2005 settlement with Indiana and 46 other states to better train its workers to prevent that type of fraud.

VISA withdrew all fraudulent charges from Pearl Segall's credit card statement after she contacted the company and police, and provided detailed documentation challenging the disputed charges.

"It was a huge hassle, but it was worth it," she said.

For most fraudulent activity involving a credit card, federal law limits the card holder's liability to $50, and many credit card issuers will waive even that if provided with proper documentation.

Police say doing nothing is not a good idea.

Victims of senior scams should contact local police, their local Area Agency on Aging and the state attorney general's office to formally report a scam as soon as possible.

Immediately report financial crimes to your bank, credit card company and credit bureaus, and continue to closely monitor bank and credit statements for continued signs of fraud.

Scam prevention

Sharing these tips and action steps with the seniors you know can help prevent them from being victims of a scam:

Avoid solicitors. This means be very skeptical of strangers who call, e-mail or show up at the front door trying to sell you something (or give it away for what appears to be free). Hanns Pieper, a professor of sociology and gerontology at the University of Evansville, says make it a policy never to conduct any business over the phone that you have not initiated yourself. "You can reduce your likelihood of becoming a victim by having a response ready," Pieper says. "When someone you don't know calls fishing for information, have a response like ‘I'm going to hang up now, goodbye.' Do not wait for a response from the caller. Rehearse this response, so it will be second nature to you. Hanging up is not rude, remember that the caller interrupted you. Consider an answering machine to screen your calls, and if you are not already on a do-not-call list, get on one."

Don't give out personal information. Pieper's advice: "Never ever give your Social Security number, Medicare number, bank account number or credit/debit card number. Don't give your name. Scammers may simply be making calls at random and not even know your name. Don't give out names of other family members or the maiden name of your mother or mother-in-law. Never give out anyone's birthday."

Extra eyes are invaluable. Ask neighbors, the mailman, the bank teller and other professionals who interact with your parents to let them (and you!) know about any suspicious activity. John Denien alerted neighbors to the bogus lawn care workers who had been visiting his mother, and it was alert neighbors who called police when the group of con artists arrived, leading to arrests. "I couldn't be there round the clock so that was our big key was having neighbors keep an eye things," he said.

Monitor the money. Every month, scrutinize credit card, bank and Medicare statements for any signs of trouble -- and offer to help your parents and grandparents do that. It can help stop a scam early, before it completely wipes out savings.

Become a computer watchdog. Take a look at the online scams you receive (including those directed into your spam folder) so you can warn others about them. Do not assume that your friends and family members will know the difference between a legitimate offer and a scam. If it seems too good to be true, it likely is. (Did you even play the lottery in Canada?) You should never have to send money to claim a prize.

Be accessible. Make sure elderly family members and neighbors know how to reach you quickly, and encourage them to call you if they have questions or receive a suspicious solicitation.

Indiana Area Agencies on Aging 800-986-3505

Indiana Attorney General consumer protection division 317-232-6330

Better Business Bureau 317-488-2222

More tips to protect seniors from the Central Indiana Council on Aging