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Investigative Report

The Fleecing of America’s Elderly

Senior citizens are more vulnerable to financial fraud schemes than ever before. Scammers now use the latest tools on the Internet, including social-media websites, to make their shady offers appear legitimate. Unfortunately, the federal government falls short in protecting seniors.

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When 83-year-old Myrtle Henderson got a phone call in fall 2010 from an area code that she didn’t recognize, she hardly could believe what she heard: A man told her that she had won millions of dollars in a lottery. All that she had to do was to send $1,000 in processing fees to Florida to collect her prize.

Henderson had no idea that the call, which came from Jamaica, was a scam. So she paid the fee and waited for money that never arrived. Instead, the same scammers called repeatedly over the next 2 years to ask her to pay additional fees. Each time, Henderson complied. The scammers reeled in her money with excuses that ranged from the U.S. government charging more taxes to promises by the scammers that she was entitled to even bigger prizes that required her to pay more fees.

Henderson sold her car so she could send the scammers more money. (Why not? They told her that she had won a Mercedes-Benz!) The scammers called for cabs to take her to the bank, so she could withdraw more money and send it to them. The scammers even posed as Henderson’s dead husband when they called the telephone company and ordered it to change Henderson’s phone number, so only the scammers could call her. By the time that Henderson’s niece got power of attorney for her aunt, took over her finances and changed Henderson’s telephone number again, Henderson had lost $150,000, which was nearly everything that she had. (Editor’s Note: We didn’t use Henderson’s real name, because her family wanted to protect her identity from other scammers.)

Today, Henderson resides in an assisted-living facility, and her only income is her monthly pension check. Authorities never retrieved her money and never tracked down the scammers.

Henderson’s devastating experience is just one of the many ways that scammers, unscrupulous professionals, and even friends and relatives financially exploit elderly Americans today. In 2010, senior citizens lost an estimated $2.9 billion because of financial exploitation, according to a 2011 report by MetLife’s Mature Market Institute, which reviewed published reports of financial elder exploitation cases. That’s an increase of $300 million from the 2009 report. Unfortunately, research shows that financial elder exploitation is vastly underreported, so experts believe any studies that attempt to determine how much money that seniors lose from financial scams likely represent just a fraction of what really has been lost.

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The types of financial exploitation that are the most prevalent vary from year to year, and if you ask authorities which types merit the most attention, you’ll get a different answer from each agency or protective service, because, to some degree, different agencies monitor different types of scams. Nevertheless, we found many examples that show how today’s scammers increasingly rely on mass-marketing schemes that incorporate the newest mass-communications tools, so they can target multiple victims in multiple locations.

What seniors face today is nothing less than increasingly global organized crime networks that have harnessed the power of the Internet and social media to reach more victims, prey on their vulnerabilities and evade capture, experts tell Consumers Digest. Scammers lure victims with the promise of prizes. They pose as grandchildren or as family friends who are in trouble and in need of emergency funds. They invite victims to free-meal financial-planning seminars. Or they pose as an online cupid who showers a victim with virtual love, so they can take him/her to the financial cleaners.

The unfortunate truth is that an industry exists that’s dedicated to stealing huge amounts of money from seniors, says Daniel Marson, who is the director of neuropsychology at University of Alabama-Birmingham and who studies how senior citizens make financial decisions. He calls financial elder exploitation an issue that has become “a time bomb with the older generation growing proportionally larger.”

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