Elder Fraud and Scams


Fraud Alerts

Friends, as a consumer lawyer I am frequently shocked by the stories I hear about how far some people will go to cheat others out of money.  Some of the worst stories I hear are about those who prey on the elderly.  If you have elderly relatives, particularly if they are technologically inexperienced or victims of dementia, be aware that there are criminals out there attempting to prey on them. Many of the old scams that have been around forever – sweetheart scams, snake oil salesmen, and overcharging – are finding new ways to use the Internet to succeed.  This article addresses a couple of scams that we have seen succeeding to a disturbing degree lately: the “809” scam and the Sweepstakes scam.

809, 876, 649, or 284 Scam

How it works

The numbers above refer to Caribbean area codes.  The scammer uses a variety of techniques to try to get the victim to call a number in one of those area codes.  Some call and hang up after one ring, trying to get a curious victim to call back.  Some leave a voicemail requesting a call back to one of those numbers.  Some try threats or offer prizes, all to try to get the victim to call the number.  Then, once the victim calls, the goal is to keep the victim on the line as long as possible. The number the victim is asked to call works like a 1-900 number here in the U.S.  If the victim calls the number, the victim's phone bill will be charged several dollars per minute of the call, some of which ends up in the hands of the scammer.  It works because Caribbean phone companies don't have a separate area code, like 1-900, for pay-per-minute calls... any phone number can be set up to work like a 1-900 number does in the U.S.

How to deal with it

Call the victim's phone company and ask them to help you get the charges refunded.  They know about these scams and can usually get some of the money back. Also, complain to the FTC.  Here’s their website.  The FTC tries to catch these criminals, and the information you provide might help them succeed.

Sweepstakes Scam

How it works

The victim receives a mailer inviting him or her to send in some small amount of money – usually $5 to $15 – for a chance to win a larger prize of thousands of dollars.  Often these mailers come from overseas.  Often they use official-looking seals and official-sounding titles to try to seem more credible.  Sometimes the victim performs a trivial mathematical task or game that makes the mailer seem more exclusive. Even in the best cases, where there really is a prize that will be given out, these sweepstakes amount to an extremely unfavorable form of gambling.  In a typical Vegas game, the “house” take might be somewhere around 5% to 10%.  In these games, it’s not uncommon for the “house” to take 80%.  If you’re one of our clients in North Carolina, note that gambling is illegal here, making these games especially dishonest. But in the worst cases, the victim will later receive a subsequent mailer stating that he or she has “won!”  But in order to claim the prize, the victim must send in some additional amount of money – usually thousands of dollars – to cover “taxes,” “fees,” or “expenses.”  The scammers will often call the victim, too, sometimes claiming to be held up at customs and needing the victim to immediately wire funds to pay customs duties.  It is not at all uncommon for the scammers to impersonate FBI agents, Homeland Security Agents, SBI agents, or other government officials.  The bottom line: if someone asks you to send money so that you can claim a prize, DON’T DO IT.

How to deal with it

Unfortunately, these people are very good at remaining anonymous, and it is unlikely that victims will be able to recover their money.  Above all, alert your elderly family members to the existence of this scam.  Don’t condescend; just let them know that you would appreciate it if they would tell you if they’re thinking of entering any contests like this.  Be careful not to make them feel embarrassed about participating in such a scam.  The worst cases I see are those where an elderly person is embarrassed to tell their family members about their participation in one of these scams and loses thousands before anyone finds out. The USPS has mounted an initiative to try to inform people about these scams, and you will probably see brochures on the topic next time you visit the post office.  They have an informative website here. If you’ve been defrauded, you can file a complaint here Unfortunately, despite the many calls we get about these scams, we are rarely able to file a lawsuit on behalf of the victim, in part because the scammers tend to be foreign nationals with limited assets.  If your loved one falls victim to one of these scams, we wish you the best and sincerely hope that government law enforcement can help to recover the lost funds.

consumer protection, elder fraud

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