Scamming Seniors: How sharks in the water are targeting older Upper East Siders
New York is a city with a boomingelderly population-thereare over 3.4 million peopleover the age of 65 living here.With that aging population come thepredators who single out older victimsfor their nefarious swindles. In an age ofsmall-time Internet scams and big-timePonzi schemes, everyone is a potentialvictim of financial crimes, but the elderlyare particularly at risk and are often targetedby would-be criminals.
Take, for example, the case of an 82-year-oldwidow living on the Upper East Side. The
elderly victim was robbed of $53,000 overa period of several months as 30-year-oldSylvester McCoy stole checks from her homeand forged her signature many times over.Or think of the example, perhaps madeworse by the victim-perpetrator relationship,of Peter Wilde, who abused the powerof attorney he exercised over his aging parents to steal over $1 million from the couple.Or the case of Carolyn Turner, a homeaide to an 81-year-old woman living on theUpper West Side, who stole over $25,000from her employer. Turner swiped the victim'sdebit cards and forged checks withouther permission in order to make credit cardand car payments not only for herself but for her adult children as well.
These are just a few of the cases thathave been prosecuted in the past year, andthose only show the crimes that are reported and solved, an outcome not always feasible
for elderly victims."What is common for all these and for somany elder abuse cases is they take placebased on existing relationships, whetherit's a home health aide, a family member orsomeone trusted and known to the senior-that's the vulnerability that the defendanttakes advantage of," said Manhattan DistrictAttorney Cy Vance in an interview.
The Elder Abuse unit in the DA's officespecifically investigates and prosecutes
cases of financial fraud and other types ofelder abuse. They take on roughly 650 caseseach year and work to prevent crimes;Vance has spoken at senior centers aroundthe city, hoping to give seniors the toolsthey need to recognize suspicious situationsand the confidence to report crimeswhen they happen."There is just an enhanced vulnerabilitywhen you get older," Vance said. "There is areluctance to either know what's going onor, even if you know what's going on, to havethe courage to report it because it might bepeople who are in fact taking care of you."
Sometimes, the person is not a familymember but someone an older person
has come to trust. The Council of SeniorCenters and Services (CSC), an umbrellagroup that represents New York City'ssenior centers, has collected stories ofelder abuse in which city services havebeen able to intervene and help.One case involved an 80-year-old manliving on the Upper West Side who met a46-year-old woman at a ballroom dancingclass and befriended her. When his friendsaid she needed $38,000 to get her harassinglandlord off her back, he willinglyloaned it to her, then allowed her to movein when she lost her apartment anyway.Within months, this former friend became athreatening roommate who refused to payback the loan and routinely threatened tokill her victim.
"Over 30 percent of elder abuse casesare perpetrated by family members andfriends," said City Council Member JessicaLappin, who chairs the Council Committeeon Aging. "It's important for people to knowthat there are support services out therefor them. If they are being exploited, theyshould feel comfortable about speakingup."The scams that target older people areoften complex and well-oiled. Mortgagescams or deed thefts, in which people trickseniors who are homeowners into signingaway their savings or their property,are common. Donna Dougherty, the attorneyin charge of legal services at JewishAssociation Serving the Aging, said seniorswho have their lives, finances and wits
about them can still get taken by thesetypes of scams.
"I've had people who have lost theirentire savings and whatnot, and they wereprofessional people. I had someone whohad worked at the Federal Reserve andgot taken by a mortgage scam. It was terriblyembarrassing to her; she was brilliantwith finances," said Dougherty. "You haveto understand that it's a crime. They reallyare looking to give you false informationand mislead you; it has nothing to do withintelligence."
While those crimes usually require apersonal connection to the victim, somecriminals chose their targets at random,anonymously."There are scams going on when a[person pretending to be a] grandchildwho lost a wallet calls and needs a tickethome," said Bobbie Sackman, director ofpublic policy at CSC. "They're preying onpeople's fears that they're alone. Somepeople might not have their full cognitiveabilities, so they just prey on these olderfolks to get whatever it is they want to get.That's a common one, when they call fromanother place."
Police reports confirm the trend. OfficerRoss Dichter, crime analyst for the UpperWest Side's 20th Precinct, said that identitytheft and online scams are some of the fastestgrowing crimes, and he routinely comesacross reports targeting elderly victims."Someone approaches an older personon the street, they say, 'Hey I found thisenvelope with $50,000 in it, go get me $5,000 and we'll split this between the two of us,no one has to know,'" Dichter explained,describing a scheme he said happens allthe time. The victim goes to the bank, takesout thousands of dollars in cash and hands
it over. The swindler gives up their "share"and quickly disappears, leaving the elderly
person with an envelope stuffed with tissuepaper and out five grand.
Another common scam is throughCraigslist, when a scammer answers anad posted by an older person advertising aservice like babysitting. The swindler correspondsand agrees to pay the person inadvance, then sends a check for far too muchmoney. The scammer then claims it was amistake and asks the person to mail backthe difference in cash; meanwhile, the checkbounces and they become unreachable.
Some schemes that target elderly victimsaren't necessarily criminal but fall intothe category of consumer fraud. CouncilMember Gale Brewer said that her olderconstituents are bombarded by mailingssoliciting information from them and thatthey often get confused about what is legitimateand what's not. She has also heard ofscams that collect low monthly paymentsin exchange for supposed ownership ofland or property, which turns out to be fornothing-send in $10 a month and get apiece of land in Florida, for instance-thatoperate just this side of legally throughcomplicated fine print disclaimers."They can make $80 million a week offof these scams. They're not small operations,"Brewer said. "They have the bestattorneys in the U.S. and they usually stayjust above the law. They only prey on theelderly. You can't quite believe that people
would actually do these things but they do."
Advocates say there are ways forseniors to protect themselves and forloved ones to be on the lookout for signsof financial exploitation. The DA's officehas worked to educate major banks tobe aware of unusual transactions in theirolder clients' accounts, and anyone helpingan elderly relative should be alertfor changes in spending or strange bills
being delivered. Dougherty cautions thatanyone who tries to isolate elderly peopleand not allow them to seek outside adviceshould not be trusted."Seniors, like everybody else, needto be vigilant without necessarily beingfearful," Vance said. "Being vigilant maybe something as simple as checking yourcredit card statement, checking yourbank statements. When someone callsyou on the phone and it sounds too goodto be true, it probably is."
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