DA Warns Seniors: Beware of Scams

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The District Attorney & Department of Aging warn about fraud and financial crimes A woman living on East 79th Street received an alarming phone call in mid-May from "Captain Tom Piscani" head of financial crime in New York who told her that she was in possession of counterfeit bills. He told her to cash a check from her bank, and meet with a plainclothes officer in front of the New York Society Library. The bank declined to cash the check, and she instead gave the officer $3,200 in cash. The officer never showed her identification. This is just one incident in a string of police fraud-related crimes that occurred on the Upper East Side in late spring. The victims were all elderly. Another victim gave a detective-impersonator access to her bank account information, and a third sensed something wrong and refused to give the "officer" any money. Patterns of fraud and scam-related crimes committed against senior citizens 65-plus are common. There are more than 700 cases of elder abuse handled by the DA's office every year, including abuse, neglect and fraud. There are multiple types of fraud crimes -- from a stranger posing as a police officer, landlord or electrician who convinces the victim to hand over cash -- to phone conversations with strangers posing as relatives pleading for bail money. The 20th precinct on the Upper West Side, in particular, saw several incidents of the "relative's cry for help" scams earlier in the year. But many times, the elderly victim knows the perpetrators personally. The Manhattan District Attorney just indicted an accountant for allegedly stealing more than $1.2 million from his client- a 95-year-old Holocaust survivor who has since passed away. "The reality is that abuse against seniors is a big problem, especially with a rapidly growing aging population," said Manhattan DA Cyrus Vance. "It's the kind of crime that people have been reluctant to acknowledge for decades, but now we are focusing on it. You have strangers, family members, fiduciaries, caregivers all taking advantage of the elderly." In addition to scams in person, Vance also named scams over the phone and Internet scams, where the perpetrator tells a victim that he or she has won a prize, or needs to enter his or her bank account information. So why are senior citizens more affected by these scams? According to the city's Department for the Aging, senior citizens are less likely to suspect anything fishy. They grew up in an era of unlocked doors and without any knowledge of misleading spam emails and scams. "This is a generation that's much more trusting than generations after it," said Aurora Salamone, director of the elderly crime victims resource center with the Department for the Aging. "The Internet is a newer tool to them and when you open up your email, a lot of time these offers or warnings look real. If you think about it, why would a bank ask you for your bank account if they have it already? But to an older persons not savvy with internet they might think it's perfectly legitimate." The Internet scams "get" their victims by making scammers' emails look as legitimate as possible using logos of banks and names. When an elderly person is scammed over the phone, the tactic is often manipulation. For instance, said Salamone, the perpetrator might hear a dog barking in the background, and relay a personal story about his or her own pet. But senior centers and senior resources centers are wising up to these tactics, and warn their senior citizens all the time about potential dangers. "We have had training for seniors making them aware of some of these risks," said Sara Peller, the Director at Dorot, a senior services center on West 85th Street. "A lot of times they fall for these phone calls, and the other risk for seniors is anyone who comes into your home; you should really be cautious of that." The last type of scam or fraud, and possibly the saddest, is when senior citizens are taken advantage of by someone they trust. It usually happens when an elderly person puts an accountant or a relative in charge of their bank account, and instead of just helping their elderly grandmother or neighbor, the perpetrators start helping themselves instead. "Seniors are folks who are capable of having a relationship which they are victimized by," said DA Vance. "Banks are supposed to throw a flag on someone coming in all the time and writing checks off a senior's account, especially with any suspicious withdrawals." In fact, said Salamone, the DA's office is specifically working with HSBC bank to train staff in ways to catch suspicious activity before it is too late. For instance, if a senior citizen usually takes $200 per week out of his bank account, but it all of a sudden spikes to $1,000, the bank will put a flag on the bank account to watch out for any further evidence. Western Union has also been cracking down on suspicious financial wire transactions. In terms of scams offering prizes or anything free, Council Member Jessica Lappin, who is also the chair of the Aging Committee on the City Council, offers this piece of important advice: "If it sounds too good to be true, it is."

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