How fraudsters are taking advantage of COVID-19 to scam you
Kathleen (*not her real name) was smitten. She received multiple texts like this each day from her new beau. In her 60s and widowed in 2019 after more than 40 years of marriage, Kathleen found herself lonely during the months of COVID-19 quarantine. So, she turned to a Christian dating site just looking for someone to talk to. And she did find someone who was eager to talk to her, getting a match after just two days on the site.
But the self-proclaimed charming, wealthy widower wasn’t who he said he was at all. He was an imposter, pretending to be German, but in reality, he was likely Nigerian and completely untraceable. Kathleen would later nickname him “The Devil” — but only after he’d spent nearly two months sweeping her off her feet and right into his web of lies, control, and deception, ultimately conning her out of $40,000.
“All the things I thought were true, were just popped bubbles,” she said. “The truth just popped.”
Kathleen was a victim of a romance scam, the most common scam in Kentucky and the nation as a whole, according to statistics from the Kentucky Attorney General’s Office of Senior Protection & Mediation. And that’s not the only scam being perpetrated against older adults. Scammers have taken advantage of the social isolation of COVID-19 to prey upon victims at an alarming rate. For the month of August, the Office reports the dollar losses from these scams increased by nearly 8,000 percent over the same month last year — from $2,984 reported in August 2019 to $237,398.85 in August 2020.
And those are just the scams that are reported. LaDonna Koebel, executive director of the Office of Senior Protection & Mediation, said, “Only one in 44 seniors who experience a fraud will report it.”
What’s Going On?
“These fraudsters are using COVID-19 to rip people off,” said Paul Troy, senior crime victim advocate with ElderServe in Louisville. “Fraudsters use current events or things in the news to capitalize on their victims.”
And with 2020 being a pandemic year, scammers have had a heyday. They know older adults are at home and isolated away from close family and friends who would become suspicious of a sudden change in behavior. “Seniors are at a major risk of financial abuse because people aren’t around to notice things that would normally be caught,” Troy said.
And, as he points out, they often have the resources scammers seek: People age 60 and older hold 83 percent of the wealth in this country. “If you’re going to target somebody for fraud, you’re not going to go after the college students eating Ramen noodles,” he said. “You’re going to target people who have worked their whole lives, own homes, and have the financial resources.”
Imposter scams — where the fraudsters pretend to be someone they are not — are 99 percent of the cases Koebel’s office sees. They are especially common now because older adults are online more often or willing to answer a phone call to break the monotony of being alone. The scams can include romance scams, charity fraud, online shopping scams, sweepstakes scams, phone spoofing, technology scams, fake law enforcement, utility company and IRS scams, social media scams, and grandchildren scams, just to name a few.
Scammers prey upon people aged 60 and older in particular because they count on them to be ashamed or too proud to admit the fraud has happened and report it.
“Embarrassment is a big part of it,” Koebel said. “But especially with seniors, they’re afraid people will judge their decision making.” Troy echoes this sentiment. “Seniors want to live independently. They don’t want to be seen as not able to take care of themselves and give up that part of their lives.”
Kathleen said she didn’t tell her adult children about her newfound romance — or her beau’s request for money — because she didn’t want them to know she was interested in seeing someone romantically, especially not an online relationship. Even when her daughter questioned her about a change in behavior, Kathleen denied anything was wrong. “I consider myself an honest person, but I was lying to my adult children,” she said. Eventually, she told her children, and they urged her to cease all contact with the scammer and report it.
The chances of fraud victims like Kathleen being able to recoup their losses from scammers are low due to the sophisticated foreign networks fraudsters set up to remain untraceable. Still, it’s important to report the crime to your local police department and your state’s Attorney General’s office. Koebel said her office can help victims connect to federal and other agencies that may be able to help, depending on the particulars of the transactions. And if nothing else, the report can help prevent the crime from reoccurring. “The best thing a victim can do is report it to our office, and we can try to raise awareness so others don’t fall for it,” Koebel said.
Troy said ElderServe can also be a resource for seniors affected by fraud and financial abuse, connecting them to resources, information, and advocacy. “Don’t be embarrassed. Don’t be ashamed to step forward. It might help prevent people from being scammed and it might help you recover your money,” Troy said. “It can help you. It can help others.”
BY LORRI MALONE