Elder fraud has surged recently, with an 84% increase in the amount lost from 2021-2022, according to an FBI report. Last year, more than 88,000 Americans over age 60 lost a combined $3.1 billion to fraud.
During a two-hour seminar at the Lou Walker Senior Center in Lithonia, Mullis and representatives from the U.S. Attorney’s Office explained many of the most common types of elder fraud, such as healthcare fraud, romance scams and virtual kidnappings. The methods they offered for combating these scams were decidedly low-tech: a placemat filled with information, plus strong, communicative relationships with family and friends.
The placemats provide a tactile reference for seniors who might be contacted over the phone by potential scammers pressuring them to make quick decisions. One of the most high-pressure tactics, virtual kidnapping, has become significantly more sophisticated thanks to new, publicly available AI tools, Mullis said.
A virtual kidnapping usually starts with a call. Scammers tell the victim that someone they know has been kidnapped while traveling and demand an immediate ransom payment. Using certain AI tools, scammers can duplicate the supposedly kidnapped person’s voice or create a fake photo.
These scams rely on terror, confusion and the pressure of immediate action to extract large sums of cash from victims desperate to help their loved ones. They’re often believable because the supposed victim has posted on social media that they’re in foreign territory.
Mullis said the most important factor in fighting these scams, and many others, is to not answer calls from unknown numbers. For those who pick up, it’s critical to avoid making any quick decisions. The call recipient should get off the phone as quickly as possible and contact the authorities and the supposed kidnapping victim or their families.
Pausing before making any financial decisions and communicating with family members and trusted friends are the keys, Mullis said. Strategies like romance scams and many types of healthcare fraud rely on the targets being isolated and ashamed.
Romance scams particularly prey upon lonely people, according to a reformed Nigerian scammer who spoke with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Chris, who did not want to provide his last name to avoid legal ramifications in that country, now works with Social Catfish, a company dedicated to preventing online scams.
Romance scammers will often spend weeks or months “fattening” their targets with an intense online relationship and near-constant communication. In Chris’ case, he built a fake profile of a handsome U.S. Army soldier and told his targets he was stationed in Africa. He would establish a habit of requesting small amounts of money from his targets to buy non-military internet access to continue speaking with them. Eventually, he would tell them he needed a large lump sum to leave his military service and move closer to them.
Romance scammers are often culturally sophisticated and college-educated, Chris said. According to a document he shared called the Nigerian Scammers Bible, perpetrators also use AI to help write realistic American dialogue or manipulate photos to fit their cover stories.
The most financially harmful scam might be healthcare fraud, an issue that worsened with the COVID-19 pandemic, Mullis said. The byzantine U.S. healthcare system is confusing in the best of times, but the pandemic allowed scammers to prey upon vulnerable people facing a deluge of new information at a time of social isolation. COVID-19 testing scams and fraudulent billing for vaccines joined the list of other common healthcare fraud tactics.
At Thursday’s event, Department of Justice officials pointed out that pandemic-era legislation loosened many Medicare policies, such as covering more telemedicine. Amid the changes, some bad actors were able to bill Medicare for services that were never rendered, unnecessary treatments or substandard care.
Seniors concerned about healthcare fraud can ask a friend or family member to attend appointments with them or review their healthcare paperwork later. Like so many other scams, healthcare fraud can be combated with strong social relationships.
Faith Cowans, a member of the senior center who attended the seminar, said she appreciated the program and that scams were a major concern for her and her friends.
She confessed that she’d lost a small amount of money on CashApp in a fake sweepstakes scheme. However, she said she’d learned from the experience and is already following some of the program’s most essential advice.
“I had my daughter set up my phone to block any unknown numbers,” Cowans said.
Common fraud schemes targeting senior citizens
COVID-19 testing fraud
- Asked to pay out of pocket for the vaccine
- Monthly deliveries of unrequested testing kits
- Medical services not rendered but appear on an Explanation of Benefits statement
- Unnecessary services
- Substandard care, neglect or injury in skilled nursing facilities
Unsolicited home visits and/or laboratory fraud
- Unannounced visitors dressed as medical providers offering unnecessary testing or screening
- Unannounced visitors asking for blood samples or cheek swabs, along with a Medicare ID number
Medical equipment and/or prescription fraud
- Calls offering medical equipment at no cost, but requiring a Medicare ID number
- Unrequested delivery of medical equipment or supplies like braces, diabetic testing supplies, topical creams and ointments, etc.
- Scammers pose as interested romantic partners, sometimes for long periods of time, before requesting money or stealing personal information
- Strangers or illegitimate companies offering investment services, often promising unrealistic rates of return
Imposter fraud schemes
- Scammers pose as government employees or officials and threaten to arrest or prosecute victims unless they pay a fine, back taxes, etc.
- Scammers pose as representatives of banks or other financial entities saying an account has been compromised, then request account login information
- Scammers report a relative has been arrested, abducted or injured and ask for immediate payment for their release or treatment
Sweepstakes and lottery scams
- Scammers tell victims they won a lottery or contest, but require them to send payment to offset taxes before winnings can be released