SCAMS, CONS, & FRAUD: Ready? (Part 1)

Every day, countless people are deceived by highly skilled actors pretending to be someone else. Their actors’ ultimate objective is simple: steal your money—all of your money. They are relentlessly persistent and very patient. Interestingly, the scams and cons inflicted on their prey are mostly well-known, perfected with time and practice. Examples include sweepstakes winners, online romance, cures for cancer, investment opportunities, professional recognition, modeling or talent agents, ransom for kidnapped loved ones, and so on. So, why do we keep falling for these scams, cons, & fraud?

A Numbers Game

It’s a numbers game; the scammers cast a wide net but usually focus their efforts on the most vulnerable targets armed with information collected online, including your personal social media posts or the posts of your known family and friends. Sometimes, scammers effectively profile and learn all about you and your life. They become whoever they need to be to build a rapport with you. Part of a team, they may cultivate information about you for a long time, looking for a good time to strike. A vulnerable time, such as after the loss of a spouse, retirement, a friend’s passing, or any other life events. Scammers look for nice, optimistic, hopeful, decent people and befriend them. Social media is a top resource for cultivating relationships. Websites such as dating and match-making are excellent sources to setup long cons. Seniors are a favorite target since so many are not technically savvy, and loneliness is not uncommon. But scammers will happily play with anybody they believe has money, and they’ll go to great lengths to take it from you.

Meet Bill

Bill is a veteran and retired electrical engineer in his eighties. He lives alone with his dog. Bill lost his wife several years ago, and his personal data was accidentally made public by the Social Security Administration in a clerical error. The error resulted in many months of disrupted benefits, but more importantly, his personal information was made public. The scammers definitely noticed.

Struggle to keep up with technology

Like many seniors, Bill struggles to keep pace with all the technology. Being bombarded by emails, cell phone calls, and text messages is daunting. Still, Bill is an engaging gentleman. He considers it rude not to answer the phone when it rings or to return calls to those who leave voice mail. The same is true for text messages, even those from unknown people or numbers claiming to be government agencies. Email is nearly impossible to keep up with as he gets hundreds of messages every day.

Fake vs real info is hard to distinguish – very frustrating

Some emails are legit and important but may be accidentally overlooked. Invoices and other notices, such as investment or bank statements, are accidentally ignored or in the junk mail. The fraudulent imitations look exactly the same as the legit emails! When timed perfectly, it takes just one email, text, or call for a scammer to get a toe-hold. Remember, it’s a numbers game. When they really hit the jackpot, they catch you in your most vulnerable emotional state. Loneliness is a very strong emotion.

Loneliness attracts top scammers and con artists

Most Seniors have similar concerns at one time or another. They worry about their financials, family, and advancing years; the more lonely they tend to get. This makes them a top candidate for scams and cons. Like many seniors, Bill worries about outliving his money. Dabbling in the stock market and investing doesn’t amass wealth like scammers promise. Fresh off a con by a Russian poser playing a beautiful, vivacious doctor who would swindle Bill into buying a house so they could move in together once she got her visa to enter the US. It’s unclear how much this scam got Bill for, but it wasn’t trivial. We know that one wire transfer was halted by an alert banker, which only made Bill mad. Bill was upset that he could not send his money wherever he wanted. He closed the account and pushed his money to another bank. This pattern would be repeated multiple times when somebody tried to help Bill to see he was being deceived, and he refused to believe it.

Financial insecurity also attracts opportunistic scammers

The most costly scam that ultimately drained Bill’s accounts and plunged his net worth into negative territory was a sweepstakes scam. When you’re on a fixed income and made a few mistakes with your cash since retirement, a big payoff via a sweepstakes windfall is intoxicating. Bill was drunk with the idea and would defy all sound logic to pave the way to riches and a new luxury car. I can’t make this stuff up. Think it couldn’t ever happen to you? Think again. Many of these criminals are good at what they do, really good. They can make the night seem like day if they get you in the right frame of mind.

You’ve won millions!

Bill’s sweepstakes scammers took their time. They were a team of actors, at least three males and two females, over the course of many months. Bill was running low on cash due to the romance con previously mentioned. He learned his lesson on that scam. It was time to recover some lost cash and make money to pad his retirement nest egg. He’s gone from $200K to about $20K in the bank, plus his monthly SS. That’s a lot of ground to cover. So when the sweepstakes people started throwing around 3 to 5 million dollars plus a fancy car, they had him. They had him completely. Over several months, they got him to transfer money to them via untraceable cash cards by buying the prepaid cards, loading amounts in the range of $500 to $1000, and then have Bill give them the numbers required to activate and use the cash anonymously. Each time, stringing Bill along with some last-minute delay due to a paperwork snafu, travel disruption, etc. They had so many excuses Bill lost track of them all. Still, he kept complying against all advice from family and advisors watching this unfold, never losing hope. It was like watching a stock value dwindle to nothing hoping that it would turn around. Then, all the money was gone. But wait, there’s more. What about your car? You won’t need that with the new Mercedes you’re getting.

They won’t stop until the well is dry

They said, “If you don’t want to sell it, go ahead and take a secured loan on the car from your bank. That amount should just about cover the special government fee you need to pay to clear the cash and the car for delivery. If you can finish the loan in time, we’ll be there as soon as Friday afternoon. We’ll take the cash in increments via cash cards since that seems to work okay for you.” Bill complied. Bill also dumped his last remaining Treasury bond and sent that too.

Penniless and the scammers are gone with the wind

By now, the cash and the car still haven’t materialized. The scammers have not yet disengaged, wondering if they can get more cash. There isn’t, and now he will let them know they really need to produce, or he will notify the authorities! They don’t care. Bill doesn’t have a clue what any of their real names are. He doesn’t even know where they are really located. All the phony paperwork that they sent him was bogus, too. They’re ghosts. It’s gone; all the money is gone. Your credit rating is shot with no hope of recovery since you cannot possibly cover all the debt with your monthly SS check. It’s a humiliating, devastating, demoralizing, shameful kind of evil to know that humans can do this to other humans, especially society’s elders. The irony is that it’s just a job for many of these scammers. They don’t give it a second thought. They just consider it like another in a string of faceless projects to be done. There are reports of some who perform as part of a team, who do so because of threats to their family members or as part of a trafficking ring. (we’ll explore more about the scammers themselves in the coming parts of this series).

The aftermath

Bill had to ask his son to cover his rent and take him grocery shopping since the cupboards and fridge were bare. But, alas, his sons and other living relatives have their own livelihoods and family obligations to look after. They, too, are dealing with retirement age. It’s unclear how this story ultimately ends. The monthly SS check should be safe (knock on wood). So, it’ll be important to cut all expenses, many of which got Bill in trouble in the first place, such as cell phone, internet, and cable TV. If there’s any value left, his car will need to go along with its expensive auto insurance. The basics of rent, utilities, and food. Bill may likely need to downsize further and find a lower-rent area to live in. He has VA benefits, and he is in good health. It’s not the retirement Bill was expecting, I’m sure. Who knows? Maybe he can find something legit to augment his income. I don’t see him being homeless and on the street. However, finding more affordable apartments without a co-signer will be much more difficult due to his now poor credit.

How can this fate be prevented for others like Bill?

I think the only real solution for others is prevention. I will publish my ideas about how to curb the rise of scammers and stop this mess, or at least slow it down significantly. This is one horrible example of Scams, Cons, & Fraud. Next time, we’ll meet a couple more victims and tell their stories.

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