George K., a 70-year-old Colorado Springs resident, recently got a call from a man who said he was with Microsoft.
George (not his real name) said the man seemed legitimate and told George he needed access to his computer so he could update it.
At one point during the process, he removed $30,000 from George’s bank account.
Samuel P. (also a pseudonym) received a call from someone stating he was with a bail bond company. Samuel’s grandson had been arrested, the caller said, and Samuel needed to send $3,000 to bail him out. If he didn’t have the cash, he should go out and buy $3,000 worth of gift cards.
These were just two of the scams against older people that were reported this week to the Colorado Springs Police Department’s Crimes Against At-Risk Adults Unit.
“We get one to two calls every day of some type of scam,” said Debbie Adelbush, a civilian investigator with the unit.
Law enforcement officials charged with protecting older people say they need help from the community to stem this growing problem, and they’re asking businesses to be on the lookout.
ELDER FRAUD SCHEMES
Elder financial abuse or exploitation can take many forms.
It could be a stranger who contacts a senior by email or, more commonly, by phone.
Common scams targeting seniors include people posing as utility or other workers to enter homes and callers posing as IRS agents who tell older people they owe taxes and must pay up or they’ll be arrested. Often, these people obtain information about their victims via the internet.
Sweepstakes and lottery scams also are common.
“We’ve had clients really buy into that,” said Dayton Romero, program manager of case management services at Silver Key Senior Services. “They were instructed to buy multiple gift cards or iTunes cards. We’ve seen an individual buy grocery bags full of them, under the impression that they were going to win something or get a return back for it.”
Most often, however, the perpetrator is someone who is known to the older person — a family member or caregiver who is taking money without the victim’s knowledge or permission, or exploiting the victim in other ways, such as using their car or other resources.
Romero, who is chair of the Pikes Peak Elder Abuse Coalition, said family members have been known to filch money from an elderly relative’s bank account. For example:
“A grandson helps Grandma out every so often,” Romero said. “Maybe he’s having trouble paying his bills, so he takes Grandma to the bank. He accompanies her one or two times, then he asks her to take out a little bit more. This escalates to where he’s talking for her at the bank. That’s a big indicator.”
Relatives might also use Grandma’s debit or SNAP card to make purchases for themselves.
In extreme cases, relatives and caregivers have been known to drain a victim’s bank account of tens of thousands of dollars.
“We’ve seen clients lose their homes,” Romero said.
SPOTTING SENIOR FRAUD
Financial exploitation isn’t just the appropriation of someone’s money, said Aric Bidwell, adult and family services manager with the El Paso County Human Services Department. “Although that does happen, the larger part is individuals that prevent someone from using an asset or take something of value, for example, living with someone and not paying rent. That could be fraud if the senior doesn’t have a way to stop it.”
Colorado has a mandatory reporting law, which went into effect in 2014.
The law requires medical providers, therapists, employees of senior housing facilities, law enforcement personnel and employees of financial institutions to report physical or financial abuse of anyone 70 or older to a law enforcement agency within 24 hours of observing such abuse.
The law provides that a report be made even if an employee specified under the law has reason to believe that an at-risk elder has been abused or exploited or is at imminent risk of exploitation. It also covers people 18 or older who have disabilities.
That’s not enough, senior advocates say.
“Anyone in the community that does any kind of business that has interaction with elder or at-risk adults certainly could come into contact with an adult that is being exploited,” Bidwell said.
It’s not uncommon for an older adult to have a routine, he said. The barista at a coffee shop or the server at a restaurant frequented by an older person may have more contact with that person than anyone else.
“The tie that person has may be super important,” he said. “They can pick up on small things.”
A waitress may notice that her regular patron looks or acts different, or a supermarket clerk could spot a potential problem if a customer buys a bag full of gift cards.
It’s those out-of-the-ordinary things that should send up red flags.
“In general, we see everybody focused on their phones,” Bidwell said. “If we were observant, we could see things that seem out of place and benefit ourselves and others in a myriad of ways.”
A new report from Comparitech, a UK-based tech research firm, estimates that more than 132,000 Colorado seniors fall prey to financial fraud or exploitation each year, which amounts to $824 million in losses to elders.
Bidwell said he’s not sure whether that represents a big increase in occurrences or an increase in awareness.
“I believe it’s been happening for a long time at a really high rate,” he said. “We’re noticing what has always been there.”
He is certain that there has been an increase in ways to defraud older folks.
Elder advocates have been working with employees covered by the mandatory reporting law to help them recognize financial exploitation, but they hope everyone will become aware of the signs and symptoms.
One way business leaders can increase awareness is to visit the Pikes Peak Elder Abuse Coalition website at humanservices.elpasoco.com. The website lists red flags and designates those who are covered by the mandatory reporting law.
The coalition conducts training and informational sessions at the request of businesses as well.
“It’s important that we as community members be diligent to be aware of those around us,” Bidwell said. “Sometimes it’s easy to stay in our own world and go about our day, but we could miss something really important. If something doesn’t seem right, talk to that individual. It could be as simple as, ‘Hey, are you OK? How are things going?’
“If something seems off, any kind of observation should be reported. I always encourage people, if there’s any doubt, report it and let us figure it out.”
To make a report, employees or business owners can call the Department of Human Service’s Adult Protective Services at 719-444-5755, or CSPD’s Crimes Against At-risk Adults Unit at 719-444-7000.
“We must rely on individuals in the community to let us know of concerns,” Bidwell said. “It really takes a community effort.”