Consumer Watch: Scams on elderly can take many forms

Consumer Watch: Scams on elderly can take many forms

November 3rd, 2012 by Ellen Phillips in Business Diary

Ellen Phillips

Ellen Phillips

One of my passions is spreading the word about scams against our elderly.

From subscription sweepstakes to grandparent schemes, this population is at great risk from low-life scam artists. It's amazing to what lengths some people will go to defraud our most vulnerable people. Some of the scams may look innocent if one isn't aware.

For instance, take the case of letters that ask for money for charitable groups. While the majority are upfront, some do slip through the cracks.

Check to see if a regular stamp is attached to the envelope. If so, then be on the alert. Legitimate organizations nearly always use bulk mailing instead of individual rolls of stamps, unless coming from a neighborhood charity captain or, perhaps, other charitable groups.

I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Deputy Chief Postal Inspector Gregory Campbell, who is in charge of the Western Fraud Division, comprising Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Denver, Dallas, Houston, Chicago and Detroit.

Campbell's most prevalent work at the moment is mail fraud, especially in the area of foreign lottery and grandparent fraud.

Let's take these two and discuss what they mean and what can be done to help destroy their scams so the postal inspectors can move on to other areas.

Grandparent fraud is an up and coming scam that is hitting more folks. The grandparent gets an email -- supposedly from a grandchild -- that states the kid is stuck in a foreign country and has either been arrested or been in an accident.

Whichever the dilemma, Dick or Jane needs immediate funds to get out of trouble or a worse fate will occur. If Grandpa or Granny were to stop and think for a moment, they would realize their precious one isn't in Brazil or France or South Africa and, therefore, the message is suspicious and should be checked out before any money leaves the billfold.

I recently experienced a version of this when I received an email purported to be from a friend who lost his wallet on a trip in Spain. A quick phone call confirmed he wasn't abroad and, of course, hasn't sent the appeal.

However, the scam hitting our elderly the most these days is the foreign lottery. A person is notified by mail or email that he or she has won the lottery (never mind that the senior never has been in Nigeria, Spain, the U.K. or Canada).

The only catch to gathering all that cash is that you must pay them a pretty substantial sum, around $250, before you can get your "winnings'" which is the substance of the scam.

More than 7.3 million seniors are defrauded this way every year, with 20 percent of the fraud victims over the age of 65, with an annual loss to the tune of $2.3 billion.

In 2007, Campbell traveled to Nigeria. During his three-month stay, he found $2.4 billion in counterfeit instruments of travel, including money sewn in suit linings and placing it in hollowed out picture frames, among others.

Unfortunately, even under postal inspector auspices, many of these thugs get away. Campbell's family wasn't even safe against potential lottery fraud.

Luckily, these members contacted Campbell, who finally convinced them they were not winners after all.

Sometimes we make the mistake of thinking only people with socioeconomic or brain deficiencies are targeted. Not true. Well-educated professionals become victims as well, and it's imperative we get the message out to everyone and his brother.

Campbell and his colleagues at the U.S. Postal Inspection Service do their best to educate the public.

Prevention campaigns include print and television ads, 18 field divisions and liaisons with the BBB and the FTC.

These campaigns warn us to never wire or send money to anyone anywhere who says we've won a lottery. Delete the email and hang up the phone. In fact, we are urged to check our own vulnerabilities by going online to to answer a few self-help questions.

So let's begin to spread the word, starting with our parents and grandparents. With education comes knowledge, and with knowledge comes prevention.

Remember, if it sounds too good to be true, it is.

Ellen Phillips is a retired English teacher who has written two consumer-oriented books. Her Consumer Watch column appears every Saturday. Email her at consumer