Almanac

News - July 3, 2013

Police probe elder fraud, warn public of the risks

by Sam Borsos

As Menlo Park police investigate a "Jamaican lottery scam" that ripped off an elderly Menlo Park couple, authorities are cautioning the public to be aware of swindles that commonly target older people. In these scams, the con artists ask victims for money or personal information in exchange for promised prizes, or pose as relatives in need of emergency help.

The Menlo Park Police Department said 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 the scammers with the card numbers via phone so they can 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 local case earlier this month. A grandparent residing on Iroquois Trail in Portola Valley sent $7,200 in cash to an address in Canada after receiving 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 the center holds workshops to warn seniors about these scams.

"We try to educate them ... about what they should be looking for in case somebody comes to their door or they receive phone calls," she 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, director of the Little House Activity Center in Menlo Park, said there have been incidents of elderly fraud reported at Little House. "It does go on more frequently than we might hear about it," he said. "Anybody would fall for it."

The California Department of Justice estimates that Americans lose $40 billion each year due to fraud committed over the telephone.

Elderly people are targets of such scams for financial and psychological reasons, the FBI says. 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 says on its website. "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."

Tips

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 to call 330-6300.

Visit tinyurl.com/fraud-628 for more information from an FBI website.

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