Scam Artists Increasingly Target Seniors, But Seniors are Fighting Back
Evelyn Barber walked into the Ocala, Fla., car dealership to claim the free gift she thought she'd won. An hour later, the 81-year-old drove away, dazed and near tears, in a car she didn't want or need.
Barber will always remember Jan. 19 as the day she fell prey to three fast-talking salesmen who, in a whirlwind of words, smiles and reassuring pats, sold her a 1998 Oldsmobile Regency - price tag $26,000.
"They ganged up on me, just badgered me," recalls Barber, a retired medical secretary. "I really felt like a lamb in a slaughterhouse, because I was pushed into something I didn't want. They targeted me because I was an elderly woman alone, naive and alone."
Like millions of older Americans each year, Barber fell for a high-pressure pitch - a well-honed, intimidating act bordering on fraud that exploits some seniors' trust in others.
Fraud, in its many forms and degrees, is an age-old problem, but experts say older Americans are being increasingly targeted by predators who view them as easy marks.
Telemarketing fraud alone costs Americans an estimated $40 billion annually - and about 37 percent, or $15 billion, of that is bilked from people age 50 or older, according to the AARP.
Seniors lose untold billions more through mail fraud - deceptive mailings with carefully placed small print - home improvement scams and dozens of other swindles designed to deceive or mislead.
And with the nation's population of people 65 or older forecast to grow to 70 million by 2030 - twice their number in 1998 - the losses are expected to mount accordingly.
Scam artists' growing interest in older Americans arises largely from the fact that, unlike previous generations, seniors now have nest-eggs thanks to better retirement plans, said Monroe Friedman, a professor of psychology at Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti, Mich.
"It used to be that to be old was to be poor, but older people now typically have greater resources than their own children and certainly more than the generation or two before them," said Friedman, who has studied fraud against seniors for more than a decade.
Aside from their money, there are a number of other factors that make seniors prime targets for swindlers.
For one, they are likely to be at home, where they can be reached by telephone or in person. And often, they are lonely and more than willing to talk at length to someone in person or on the phone. To them, the person pushing this or that scam is a form of "company," Friedman said.
But it's not just the naive or unsophisticated who fall prey to scams. Many schemes are so well laid-out and presented with such attention to detail that there is no reason to doubt them.
"Sometimes, the victims don't even know what happened to them until you explain it to them," said Jean Constantine-Davis, an attorney for AARP Foundation Litigation, which represents fraud victims.
For Barber, a widow, it started with a deceptive mailing informing her that she had won a prize and could collect it at the dealership. It ended in a deal, financed on the spot, in which she traded in her perfectly fine 1995 Buick Century for an overpriced used car she'll be paying $312.23 a month on for five more years.
The deal drained Barber's finances so effectively she may have to sell her two-bedroom Ocala villa to pay off the car. Hoping to prevent that, her five children are pressing for legal action to nullify the sale.
And Barber has yet to see the free gift - five gold coins - she was promised. "I'm not holding my breath," she says.
In some cases, an older person's victimization can consume his life savings and tear the victim's family apart as relatives try to intervene.
That was the case for Gary A. Sandridge of Upper Sandusky, Ohio, whose late father fell victim to misleading mailings and phone calls from telemarketers who convinced him he had won up to three new cars.
Lorence Sandridge, a retired railroad telegraph operator, took out a second mortgage on his house to build a new garage for the cars he was repeatedly assured by letter and phone he had won.
Over a year's time, he lost more than $40,000 pursuing those cars and virtually worthless prizes such as baseball caps and vitamins. He became increasingly isolated from his family, stubbornly refusing to believe their warnings that he was being bilked.
Gary Sandridge wasn't able to intervene to stop the fraud until his father, a widower who lived alone, suffered a health crisis that forced him to move to a nursing home.
Eventually, Sandridge was able to recover about $13,000 of the $40,000 his father had lost. He used that to settle another $18,000 in credit card billings his father had run up in pursuit of his prizes.
Sandridge, whose father died at age 84 a few years after the scam in the mid-1990s, eventually learned his father had been suffering from the onset of dementia. Now, he harbors a deep hatred for the people who tricked his father.
"These people were just ruthless. They don't care about the individual or if you get thrown out onto the street as long as they got their money," Sandridge said.
But older Americans and prosecutors are taking steps to combat fraud. Many states are educating seniors about how to avoid getting scammed.
Florida, home to about 16 million permanent residents age 65 or older, has one of the oldest programs, called "Seniors Versus Crime." It educates and enlists them as watchdogs to keep an eye out for fraud schemes.
"They just kind of act as the eyes and ears of their neighborhood," said Nick Cox, a Florida assistant attorney general based in Tampa.
Don Ravenna, a retired New Hampshire state trooper who recently took over as director of Florida's program, said about 800 volunteers serve as undercover "Senior Sleuths" who snoop around to uncover fraud. Some have agreed to become willing pawns to help police catch scammers.
The sleuths recently helped prosecutors file racketeering charges against three companies that were operating a high-pressure scheme to convince seniors that their water was tainted and that they needed expensive filtration systems to purify it. Police secretly videotaped the seniors' in-home meetings with the salesman.
"We were scamming the scammers," Ravenna said.
Among the sleuths who helped crack the water-conditioning scam was an 83-year-old widow from the St. Petersburg area nicknamed "Granny Super-sleuth," even though she doesn't have any grandchildren.
The woman, who agreed to be interviewed on condition her name not be used since her undercover work continues, says she and her silver-haired comrades have a message for con men.
"These days, you may not know it, but the older lady listening to your spiel so intently with big eyes could be a senior sleuth," she said. "We could be anywhere."