Targeting Seniors: Fraud Scams a Growing Concern in Loudoun

Cybercrime is on the rise, and Loudoun’s seniors are being hit with multiple evolving scams. But the Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office, government agencies and seniors themselves are fighting back.

It used to be that crooks would case a house to find an unlocked basement window or door by which they might enter to rob the owners. Today, the assault is more likely to be more multifaceted, and increasingly through cyberattacks on your “financial house.”

Threats Close to Home

Insurance executive William R. Henry Jr. got interested in the subject after an incident in his family, perpetrated by a caregiver.

The Leesburg resident’s ensuing book, “The Crown of Life Society,” co-authored with elder law attorney A. Frank Johns Jr., has resulted in appearances on radio talk shows and invitations to write guest articles.

Many cases involve physical or emotional intimidation from those closest to the victims, Henry said.

Some thefts can be relatively simple—such as stealing small amounts of cash or cashing checks made out to a relative or helper to buy supplies and then pocketing small amounts of the money, or persuading the check writer the amount was different from what they remembered.

Similarly, a helper can make an ATM withdrawal and pocket a small amount, or use a power of attorney to pay off their own loans or debts.

The fastest growing segment of abuse is in the cyber field.

“It’s so easy—and inexpensive—today to get hold of mass phone and email lists,” Henry said.

Middleburg Bank Manager Tammy Payne at the Catoctin Circle branch in Leesburg advises clients not to use a debit card online, as even if the thieves don’t have the pin number, they can still run up charges.

There are many ways criminals can try to steal account holders’ money. “They start small and work their way up, testing what they can get,” Payne said.

Preying on Seniors     

In his five years as the county’s top law enforcement officer, Sheriff Mike Chapman said he’s seen all kinds of scams.

“It’s amazing how ruthless and how creative some of these scammers are,” he said in an interview. He said most of the calls come from overseas—and the money goes oversees—making it difficult to prosecute.

       Seniors are trusting but often not technologically savvy, even though many like to use email and Facebook. When hit by thieves, they may be embarrassed at having been taken in, and reluctant to report incidents or tell their families through fear of losing their independence.

“Criminals prey on seniors,” Chapman said. He cited threatening phone calls, such as the one in which the caller claims the victim missed a court day and must send money to avoid arrest. The scammers usually ask for a pre-paid debit card available at grocery and convenience stores. Now, iTunes cards are becoming popular with scammers.

IRS fraud notices are another popular trick. One 88-year old woman received a call from a man who said he was from the IRS and that it was urgent for the woman to talk to him or she would be fined a huge amount because of a mistake she’d made. Wisely, she checked with her adult sons, who confirmed that the IRS never notifies by phone. She preferred to remain anonymous for fear that she could be targeted again.

Social security is a good target. One of the Sheriff’s Office’s recent cases concerned a man who was laid off at the end of the year, with no compensation. When he went to claim unemployment, the associate said “I see you’ve been applying for several months.”

“But, I haven’t, this is the first time,” he said—only to be told “someone’s been using your social security number.”

Or, scammers use the email of a person known to the target, and ask them to wire money because the sender is in trouble and needs help.

More serious are phone calls from purported online technical support groups saying there’s a virus or a security problem on the senior’s computer. Sometimes the scam comes in an email with the hope that the victim will click on a link. The criminals gain remote access to the computers and the sensitive information they contain.

Sgt. Dale Spurlock is the Sheriff’s Office “boots on the ground.”

Spurlock noted one disturbing trend is an uptick in direct physical threats against seniors or their family members.

He cited construction crews that turn up and demand payment to buy supplies for what they insist are needed roofing repairs or driveway sealing, then promise to come back next day to do the work—which they don’t.

“People are victimized through lack of knowledge. Or it might be storms or significant snow—we call them ‘storm chasers,’” he said.

“A lot of these scams are so believable,” said Sheriff’s Office Public Information Officer Kraig Troxell.

There’s the “grandparents” scam. A senior can get a phone call with a difficult-to-hear bad connection, and hear something like “Grandma, it’s your grandson, Mike. I’m in Mexico, and got into a bit of trouble over some pot—they’re holding me.” The caller then gets off the phone and hands it to a “police officer,” who says the senior needs to wire money or provide payment with a pre-paid debit card or even an iTunes card.

One woman received a call, supposedly from an auto repair shop, saying her granddaughter had had a minor accident, but her car needed repairs. “If you give us your credit card number we can get her back on the road,” the caller said.

Bad check scams are also numerous.

Sometimes residents are hired for a job online or through emails. Then they are asked to use their own credit cards and be reimbursed later. When that “company payment” finally comes in, the check is bad.

One of the older, but continuing scams, involves online purchases, such as through Craigslist. The buyer sends a check well in excess of the purchase amount and then asks the seller to deposit the check and send back the difference. Often, by the time the bank informs the victim that the check didn’t clear, money already has been sent to the scammer. “They got what you sent,” Troxell said.

Then there is the lottery or sweepstake scam. An email arrives saying the recipient has won, but taxes and fees need to be paid before collecting the winnings. Once received, the lottery check is bad.

“If it looks too good to be true, it usually is,” Troxell said.

Fighting Back  

       But an increasingly robust defense line is being activated—mainly by the Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office in cooperation with the Area Agency on Aging, Parks, Recreation and Community Services, Adult Protective Services, and other area police departments.

Education is key, Chapman said.

“The educational process helps people not to be afraid. We believe it’s very successful, and we ask those who don’t fall prey to the crimes, still to get back to us,” he said.

If people lose money, they should talk with a deputy by calling 703-777-1021. Even if they didn’t lose money, the scams still should be reported at sheriff.loudoun.gov/reportonline. That way police can keep an eye on new scams and also track the number of people who realize it’s a scam.

In cases where a family member is being threatened, seniors are advised to call 911 immediately.

Public Education Programs

Spurlock serves as the liaison with government agencies to present public awareness programs around the county—in senior centers, retirement homes, churches and community centers.

“The most effective outreach is education to as many seniors as possible about criminal behavior so they can recognize it,” Spurlock said. It’s the biggest weapon we have; criminal methods evolve so quickly.”

He stressed the importance of reporting scams, even unsuccessful ones. “That way we can trap the worst,” he said.

“When we give the presentations, people will say, ‘Oh yes, I got an email like that,’” Spurlock said. “We want to make sure seniors are very clear on what the scams are, so they don’t provide their Social Security number, or home address, or bank information—that only gives the scammer more information by which they can craft a plausible approach to get their money.”

Senior Ambassadors

Spurlock works closely with Area Agency on Aging Volunteer Coordinator Deborah Bressler, who has 80 volunteers trained to help seniors. Volunteers are encouraged to sign up for the county’s E-alert system, and information is circulated on new scams as soon as the AAA staff learns of them.

“We’re trying to make sure there are ambassadors everywhere seniors gather,” Bressler said.

For instance, the Potomac Greene community is home to four ambassadors, one of whom posts notices from the sheriff’s office in the community newsletter. When people gather for coffee and a chat, someone brings up the latest scam. In Leesburg’s Tavistock neighborhood, there’s a book club where ambassadors also keep members informed.

Ambassadors monitor the Virginia Attorney General’s website and the Sheriff’s Office webpage for scam alerts and spread the word on Twitter and Facebook feeds. They also help coordinate community presentations by Spurlock.

The next training session for AAA volunteers is Jan. 27, with Spurlock coordinating. For details, go to loudoun.gov/AAA.

Adult Protective Services

Valerie Burton is the program manager for Adult Protective Services, a division of Loudoun’s Department of Family Services.

APS receives mandatory reports of abuse, neglect and exploitation for ages 60 and up—from hospitals, physicians, urgent centers, police, neighbors, teachers, home health agencies, etc. If the complaint meets the APS criteria, the office will begin an investigation.

“We do a lot of joint investigations with the sheriff’s office—we work as a team, when it’s a criminal case,” she said.

To make a physical abuse report to APS, call 703-777-0353. Reports on financial or technological scams should be reported to the sheriff’s office at 702-777-1021.

mmorton@loudoun.now

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