Scamming the elderly: Imposters posing as officials are stepping up game preying on seniors

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Photo showing a senior of Indian origin, checking the computer from Justice.gov section on finding help for seniors. (https://www.justice.gov/elderjustice/find-support-elder-abuse)

Horror stories of seniors being scammed by shysters who imitate government officials emptying their bank accounts and intimidating them with threats of arrest are legion. These criminals appear to have stepped up their game recently, obvious from the several alerts the FBI and Justice Department are sending out warning seniors to beware. Indian-American seniors are among the victims say social service workers.

The Justice Department’s Office of Justice Programs describes some of them – “One caller received a computer pop-up that said she needed to secure her account.  After providing her financial information, the scammer took at least $30,000.  Another called to report that he lost $200,000 over four years to someone who had deceived him into thinking she was his girlfriend.  And a third was still waiting for a contractor to come through on a roof repair—for which the caller had paid months earlier.”

Most Indian-Americans, of all ages, have received scam calls from people, mostly men, many with Indian accents, who usually make a poor show of threatening a victim. But even if one in a hundred of those calls pans out, it means someone’s life just got way more difficult. And a criminal just got richer.

“Americans are fed up with the constant barrage of scams that maliciously target the elderly and other vulnerable citizens,” said U.S. Attorney General William Barr back in March 2020, when announcing the largest-ever haul of alleged fraudsters. The AARP reported that from March 2019 to March 2020, some 400 defendants had been charged with bilking seniors out of more than $1 billion.

Many of these were foreign-based schemes, targeting different ethnic groups and have even acquired their own named categories — romance fraud, grandparents scams, tech- scams, Social Security scams, Internal Revenue Service scams etc.

Barr said that preventing and disrupting ‘transnational elder fraud’ is one of the top priorities of the  Justice Department.

After what might be a hiatus of sorts since the March 2020 arrests, during the height of the Covid-19 crisis, these scammers appear to be waking up to their calling, no pun intended.

The Justice Department sent out an ‘Alert’ Sept. 4, 2020, from San Diego, California, that DOJ has “received multiple reports that individuals claiming to represent the DOJ are calling members of the public as part of an imposter scam.”

The department strongly encourages the public to remain vigilant and not to provide personal information during these calls, which appear to target the elderly, the press release said. .

On Sept. 9, the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of New York also sent out a ‘Fraud Alert’ about scammers claiming to be with the Department of Justice, again warning seniors that they were the target in most of these cases, and not to give out personal information.

Reports to the National Elder Fraud Hotline indicate these scammers falsely represent themselves as Department of Justice investigators or employees and attempt to obtain personal information from the call recipient, or they leave a voicemail with a return phone number.

The return phone number directs users to a recorded menu that matches the recorded menu for the department’s main phone number, noted the press release from California. Eventually, the user reaches an “operator” who steers the user to someone claiming to be an investigator. That “investigator” then attempts to gain the user’s personal information.

The New York fraud alert gives an almost identical account. And these details mirror the call that one of the seniors interviewed by News India Times related (See accompanying story).

“I have been getting a lot of calls lately,” Sudha Acharya, a senior in Queens, told News India Times. “Today for example, a caller said ‘I am a police officer’. After several calls, I picked up and said I know you are not a police officer. So the voice said, ‘Okay, stay where you are and we will come and arrest you.’,”.

Acharya luckily, is savvy on these matters. She is the executive director of South Asian Council for Social Services, which deals a lot with seniors in need of help, and according to her, many of her colleagues are getting similar calls.

“It (scam calls) had not happened for a few months. But just this week, it’s picked up again,” Acharya noticed.

In many cases, the caller ID shows a Washington, D.C. area code (202), which makes it more convincing.

Counselors are hard at work telling seniors not to pick up calls from numbers they do not recognize, and to ignore such threats and not be worried.

Mary Archana Fernandez, the director of Family Support Services at SACSS, is dealing with the consequences of such scam calls on her clients.

“One of my clients gave them her debit card number and her bank account got emptied,” Fernandez told News India Times. “Even if it was not a huge amount, that $600 was for paying her rent.” Calls to Social Security Administration, the victim’s bank to close the account, etc. were steps that had to be taken.

“If you have limited English proficiency and hear ‘Department of Justice’ and stuff like that, you think  ‘Oh my God! Am I in trouble?’,” Fernandez said.

“This happened to three people,” Fernandez said. One of them mistakenly thought that the caller belonged to Fernandez’ organization when he claimed to call from the Social Security office. He gave the caller his Social Security number, and later came to Fernandez to ask if she had called him. He subsequently had to make changes to his bank accounts etc.

“So it happens to a lot of our seniors,” says Fernandez who foresees more problems around the bend with the launch of the ‘Text and Trace’ initiative in New York. “Now a lot of seniors feel they dont’ want to answer calls or give personal information, but we tell them that in this case, you have to give some personal information because it is for Covid.”

“We tell them the caller ID will say ‘Text and Trace’ and that they should answer the call and ask for a translator if they are do not have English proficiency,” Fernandez said.

According to the National Council on Aging, says ” Financial scams targeting seniors have become so prevalent that they’re now considered “the crime of the 21st century.” Why? Because seniors are thought to have a significant amount of money sitting in their accounts.” But a lot of low-income seniors get hit by this crime.,

“With the elderly population growing and seniors racking up more than $3 billion in losses annually, elder fraud is likely to be a growing problem,” says the FBI

“We don’t want anyone – particularly our seniors – to be fooled by scammers posing as employees of the Department of Justice,” said U.S. Attorney Robert Brewer of California in the press release. “Please protect yourself! Do not be fooled by scammers, and don’t give out your personal information to a random caller claiming to be a DOJ employee.”

“Phone scams are an ugly and pervasive act of victimization. The scams being reported to our National Elder Fraud Hotline are especially heinous because they show the perpetrators are preying upon one of the most vulnerable segments of our society – the elderly,” said Director Jessica Hart of the Office of Justice Programs’ Office for Victims of Crime (OVC), in the press release.

Those who receive these calls are encouraged not to provide personal information and to report these scams to the FTC via their website or by calling 877–FTC–HELP (877-382-4357). Fraud can also be reported to the FBI for law enforcement action at https://www.justice.gov/criminal-fraud/report-fraud.

The National Elder Fraud Hotline is a resource created by OVC for people to report fraud against anyone age 60 or older. Reporting certain financial losses due to fraud as soon as possible, and within the first 2–3 days, can increase the likelihood of recovering losses. The hotline is open seven days a week. For more information about the hotline, please visit https://stopelderfraud.ovc.ojp.gov/

One Senior’s Point-By-Point Account Of A Scam Call

(Name withheld due to privacy concerns)

“I was waiting for a return call which is why I picked up the without looking at the calling number. The person at the other end had a very heavy Indian accent. But then that’s so common these days in America.
The man first asked me my full name. And then here’s what followed. I am going over the important points so others can identify these calls.
1. Ask your full name.

2. Tell you where they are calling from. The man told me he was an officer from the Social Security Administration.

3. To make it seem authentic, they give you their name and a badge number and want you to write it down saying they would give you a personal call back number.

4. Then they would start with something drastic. To me the man said my car was found abandoned with blood all over it. I don’t own a car. And what has SSA got to do with a homicide case. I laughed a little and asked, ‘Why are you calling if that’s true. Shouldn’t the police be at my house?’

5. They don’t give up. At first they try to make you feel they’re trying to help you.
To me, he said the SSA knew I was not involved. He was only trying to reconfirm that it was not my car as they found millions of dollars going out of my account to someone in Maxico.
By then I was really laughing. I could have put down the phone but wanted to see how far would he go. Of course I knew he was a fake and a fraud. See when they make these calls, they still don’t know our day-to-day manner of talking.
He gave himself away completely saying, “ Madam, be respectful. This conversation is being taped by the FBI and the Police.”

6. When the helping “poor you “ tactic doesn’t work, they try intimidating you and threatening you.
My caller had someone call me during my conversation with him from the spoofed local police precinct number. That was definitely an American voice. The woman gave me a name from a comic book strip and told me she had 4 warrants for me and if I don’t continue to talk to them, she can be at my door in 10 minutes. She said I would definitely go to jail.
Even if you know the case is not real, you begin to tire out and feeling low. You start remembering all horror stories of police atrocities and good people trying to prove their identity.

7. I tried calling the SSA from my other phone. But it doesn’t give you a person and you have to go through a web of machine messages.

8. So I called a journalist friend who told me to ask the person to call me on the FBI press office number. The man at the other end agreed to and in half a minute I got a call from that number. So they found out they had reached NY FBI and spoofed that number to call me. My friend asked me to pick up the call which I did.
But the person heard my friend’s voice and sounded alarmed. “Who are you calling, madam,” he asked.
I told him I was calling my family. When he asked me why, I said, “If this thing is such a big problem, I want my family with me.”
I then disconnected him.

9. They still don’t give up. They had wasted their time and hadn’t got me to send them any money “in order to resolve the case”. Do they really sit in those countries and think America operates this way, you wonder.

After that I got 7 more calls, from the spoofed FBI number, from the spoofed police precinct number and some unknown numbers.

10. I reported this call online with the Attorney General’s office. I called the FBI and the officer explained to me that they were trying to deal with the issue.          “There are between 2,000 and 2,500 such calls per month most of them originating from the Gujarat city of Ahmedabad, “ he said. He said they are successful when they catch and arrest the callers’ counterparts in the US who try to collect the money that is wired through the Western Union.
He advised me to get call protect from my service provider which I did. I still get about 8 fraud calls per day – pretending to be from the Con Edison or from other utility companies.

11. I also called the police precinct and the officer who picked up my call only laughed. He told me nothing could be done about it. I asked him to take my complaint on the phone reminding him of the lock down. He said the police cannot take complaints on the phone and Covid or no I would have to go personally to file a complaint.

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