RHONE: Tale of elder fraud a reminder to stay engaged with older adults

In the movie ‘Thelma,’ a grandmother takes matters into her own hands when she’s swindled
Richard Roundtree and June Squibb in "Thelma," a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

Credit: Magnolia Pictures

Credit: Magnolia Pictures

Richard Roundtree and June Squibb in "Thelma," a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

There is a scene in the forthcoming film “Thelma” when actress June Squibb, the title character, and the late Richard Roundtree, portraying her partner-in-crime, walk away from a building with a fire blazing in a trash can behind them.

Spoiler alert. Skip the next two paragraphs if you don’t want to know how they came to that moment.

OK, here goes: The nonagenarians had hunted down and handled a scammer who swindled Thelma out of $10,000 by pretending to be her grandson.

Watching the two of them walk off, trash can burning, seemed like the equivalent of a mic drop — to be celebrated by anyone of a certain age who has ever felt taken advantage of and found themselves with no way to seek retribution.

The film, in theaters June 21, was inspired by the real life experience of writer/director Josh Margolin’s grandma. His grandma got a scam call a few years ago and almost sent thousands of dollars to would-be thieves who told her Margolin needed bail money.

The movie relies on humor to tell the very unfunny story of aging in America. It forces viewers to feel what it is like to become prey when you’re no longer as agile as you once were. It highlights the soullessness of those who take advantage of vulnerable members of the population.

But it also can serve as a reminder that we all need to be more engaged with the older people in our lives. Margolin’s grandmother didn’t end up sending the money because she contacted family members before acting and they assured her that he was safe rather than behind bars.

Before that incident, Margolin thought of his grandma as indomitable — she is 103, had survived wars, beaten cancer (twice!) and outlived her husband. When she was almost fooled by scammers, it shook Margolin’s sense of comfort.

Watching the film, I understood this feeling. The moment Roundtree appeared on screen as the character Ben, I thought of my dad and the process I went through in coming to terms with the fact that he was growing older and would not live forever.

A memory popped into my head of him relaxing in the sitting room at home, with the television tuned to MSNBC or classic westerns. If the phone rang during these shows, he would quietly grumble “Who’s calling my phone?” Then, he’d answer the call with a pleasant and drawn out “Helloooo?”

His tone would take a turn as soon as he realized the caller was trying to sell him something or convince him to do something. A lively back and forth would ensue. “Whatever you are selling, I don’t want it,” he would say.

Whenever I was visiting and this happened, I would sit patiently for about 10 seconds before waving my hands frantically in front of his face and mouthing the words “Just hang up!” I’d make the motion of placing a phone receiver back on an old-school cradle, even though by then he had graduated to using a cordless phone.

He would nod at me and grin, but he would keep talking. I thought he was just being stubborn. I didn’t realize until I saw “Thelma” that this was his way of sticking it to any would-be scammers.

Thelma and Ben rode out at dawn seeking vengeance. My dad just used his tongue.

He would let the callers talk, then argue with them, very likely exasperating them, until one of the parties, him or them, tired of going in circles and hung up.

Luckily, he was never the victim of an elder scam, at least not that I am aware of. But the opportunity was there.

Fraudulent schemes and financial abuses aimed at older Americans are as old as America, but these types of crimes are on the rise. Complaints to the Federal Bureau of Investigation increased 14% in 2023. That year, Georgia ranked 13th among states with the highest number of elder abuse complaints.

Movies like “Thelma” and the 2021 Netflix hit “I Care a Lot” have highlighted the ways in which these crimes have evolved from simplistic to sophisticated.

Scam text messages and emails. Scam investment opportunities. Scam bank alerts. Scam tech support. And on and on it goes.

Many of these crimes against elders don’t get reported because the victims are embarrassed.

In 2020, in response to the rise in elder scams, the U.S. Department of Justice created the National Elder Fraud Hotline. Callers, age 60 and older, are assigned to a case manager who offers free assistance in reporting the crime and can provide other resources as needed.

But guess what?

It didn’t take long for scammers to create a new scam posing as staff from the Elder Fraud Hotline, asking for personal information or money, while threatening to file a lawsuit if the call recipient didn’t comply.

Scammers are always gonna scam.

Most victims of elder fraud won’t seek the kind of burn-it-to-the-ground justice doled out by Thelma and Ben. But they do deserve justice, not just passive acknowledgement that they’ve been done wrong.

In real life, the fight to hold scammers accountable continues. On screen, Thelma’s tenacity makes it happen.

Read more on the Real Life blog (www.ajc.com/opinion/real-life-blog/) and find Nedra on Facebook (www.facebook.com/AJCRealLifeColumn) and Twitter (@nrhoneajc) or email her at nedra.rhone@ajc.com.