Last month, I attended a presentation about identity fraud and scams. The presentation was timely, as I was consulting on two cases of phone scams. Both victims were elderly females whose spouses were still alive. The victims received multiple phone calls each week from individuals who claimed that the victims were winners of large lottery payouts. To receive the payout, callers instruct the victims to wire funds to cover taxes, fees, or other expenses related to their winnings up front. The victims wire the money as directed, and the scam is complete. In many cases, the scammer runs off with the money and is never heard from again. In other cases, the same scammer continues to correspond with the victim, requesting additional funds for “taxes” or “problems” arising from the purported winnings. The promise of a payout, plus the sunk costs, can keep the victims participating over long periods of time.

In another meeting over the summer, we heard that a notice was being put out locally regarding scammers posing as a victim’s relative, such as a grandson, who is in jail and needs money for bail right away. Grandpa immediately produces a credit card number or bank routing/account numbers over the phone to help his “grandson”, thereby granting the scammer access to the victim’s funds.

When an individual is targeted successfully, his or her name may be placed on a “sucker list”. Sucker lists are lists of persons who have been taken advantage of previously, and therefore more likely to fall for a scam again. Sucker lists are available for purchase by other scammers online, and the fraud continues.

Scams are difficult to prosecute. The perpetrators are often foreign, which prevents law enforcement in the United States from pursuing them. Even if the perpetrators are local, they usually don’t hang around long enough to get caught, and they pack up their things and move to another part of the country. Funds are difficult to trace as well, especially if wired overseas, withdrawn as cash first, or paid via money order. In a recent case, the postal service intercepted a suitcase full of cash that the victim attempted to mail overseas. When funds and perpetrators can’t be traced, victims are unlikely to get any of their money back.

Consumer education is key to preventing scams. A wealth of information is available online, but how do you reach a segment of the population, such as seniors, who may not even own a computer? Lifespan of Greater Rochester developed this brochure, including 10 rules for scam prevention, as part of their free scam prevention training sessions: download and print brochure here. Local senior services organizations and community centers may host similar training sessions on prevention topics.

If you are aware of an ongoing scam, or believe you may have been scammed, call the police. When you file a police report, ask what resources are available to fraud victims in your area. Law enforcement should be able to connect you with services and information you need to prevent scams in the future.