By Sam Borsos
Special to the Almanac
An elderly Menlo Park couple ripped off in a Jamaican lottery scam is one of several, police announced on June 24. The con artists ask victims for money or personal information in exchange for promised prizes, or pose as relatives in need of emergency help.
It's not known how much money the elderly couple lost to the scam. Sgt. Kevin Paugh from the Menlo Park Police Department, who is working on the case, was not immediately available for comment.
According to the FBI, senior citizens are common targets for fraud for financial and psychological reasons. Older people are likely to own their home and have good credit. Suspects also hope that the effects of age on memory will affect a victim's ability to accurately report the scam details to authorities.
"Older Americans are less likely to report a fraud because they don't know who to report it to, are too ashamed at having been scammed, or don't know they have been scammed," the FBI website states. "Elderly victims may not report crimes, for example, because they are concerned that relatives may think the victims no longer have the mental capacity to take care of their own financial affairs."
The Menlo Park Police Department said in a press release that the suspects in these cases call using unknown or blocked numbers from areas such as Kingston, Jamaica, or Las Vegas. After gaining the victim's interest, the suspects ask for a loan in exchange for a large financial gain, or to help claim a prize.
The scammers often have the victims write checks or wire large amounts of money, acting as their agents in other states or countries. Sometimes they ask victims to purchase gift cards and provide them with the card numbers via phone to redeem the cards for cash.
In other local cases, suspects call elderly victims pretending to be members of the family, claiming to have had an accident or been incarcerated. The suspects then ask for money to help out with legal expenses.
This type of fraud occurred in a case earlier this month, when a grandparent residing on Iroquois Trail in Portola Valley sent $7,200 in cash to an address in Canada after a phone call from "a grandchild" who claimed to need the money to avoid going to jail after a car accident in San Francisco involving a Canadian diplomat.
A Sheriff's Office spokesperson said the cash never made it to the recipient. Canadian customs officials held the package after learning of its contents and the scam and returned it to the sender.
Avideh Samardar, a senior services supervisor at the Menlo Park Senior Center, said that she hasn't heard about any cases from her patrons.
"We try to educate them quite a bit in workshops throughout the year about what they should be looking for in case somebody comes to their door or they receive phone calls," Ms. Samardar said. "There's a good percentage that don't report because they're just so embarrassed, so it doesn't mean that it hasn't happened, it means that they just don't voice it."
Peter Olson, a director at Little House, said that there have been a few incidents of elderly fraud reported where he works. He said that last year, someone claimed to be a relative of a senior over the phone.
"It does go on more frequently than we might hear about it. Anybody would fall for it," Mr. Olson said.
An article by the California Department of Justice estimated that Americans lose $40 billion each year due to fraud committed over the telephone.
The Menlo Park Police Department offered tips on how to avoid getting scammed:
* Have an unlisted phone number.
* Don't answer calls from unknown, blocked or private numbers.
* Never provide any personal information to anyone over the phone that initiates a call to you.
* If you do pick up one of these calls, verify the information with family members prior to acting on what you are being asked to do.
Police ask that anyone with information about these scams call 330-6300.