SHERIDAN — Phone calls and emails about mass sweepstakes winnings, student loan deals and requests for financial assistance originate from all over the world, including Sheridan County. Scams and instances of exploitation targeting senior citizens are particularly difficult to investigate and prosecute.
Common scams directed at seniors include a romance scam, theft by caregiver, family member exploitation and money mule scam (posing as a person in need), according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
People who live alone and seniors who depend heavily on others to manage finances are at increased risk of becoming a victim of financial exploitation, Dementia Friendly Wyoming Sheridan program director Kay Wallick said. Sustaining a monetary loss as a result of fraud — which averages $36,000 per victim nationally — can be devastating, she said. For someone with minimal resources to begin with, such a loss could make covering daily expenses nearly impossible.
One Sheridan couple sustained a loss of more than $100,000 after a scammer convinced the grandparents their grandson needed bail money to be released from jail in Mexico. The publicity of social media accounts makes it easy for scammers to gather intimate details to substantiate their stories, Sheridan Police Department Lt. Travis Koltiska said.
Fraudulent activities are likely to continue longer in cases of family member exploitation, which is under-reported and difficult to prove. Seniors with diminished mental capacity, older than the age of 80 or with a joint account are more likely to be victims of fraud, according to the CFPB. Actual losses and attempts in cases of elder financial exploitation totaled $1.7 billion in 2017, up from $931 million in 2014.
Scammers are skilled at sounding professional to legitimize their claims and hook people, Koltiska said. Some fraud victims with fixed income might be drawn in by the potential to relieve their financial burdens with the offer of a substantial sum of money.
Anyone in the U.S. can register their business address as 30 N. Gould St. through Best Wyoming Registered Agent LLC. Koltiska said the SPD has received complaints from all over the globe claiming fraud for online purchases from businesses registered under the Sheridan address — including nine cases from this year alone.
“There are legitimate means of utilizing that [service] as well,” Koltiska said. “If you wanted to work from home and sell goods out of your house…but too often it’s used inappropriately.”
Becoming a victim of fraud doesn’t have to involve falling for a scam, he said. Some people are simply attempting to purchase goods online from a “supplier” who never intended to provide those goods in exchange for money. A video advertising the registered agent service highlights convenience for home-based businesses and claims it fulfills state compliance while keeping names out of the public record.
Wallick said improving awareness of financial exploitation throughout Sheridan County businesses can increase the number of vulnerable, isolated people who are protected.
Financial adviser Arik Jacobson said First Federal Bank now has 100% of their employees trained with dementia awareness best practices. As a financial confidant, Jacobson said he can intervene in some potentially fraudulent situations by performing his own research, watching for divergences from established patterns and asking clients critical questions.
Cases of exploitation by a caregiver or family member are typically a combination of both financial need and opportunity, Jacobson said. It can be difficult to show if a family member was authorized to receive funds or not. Some clients seek to maintain a level of privacy and autonomy regarding their finances — at the end of the day, the client has the final say on what happens with their money, he said.
Koltiska said it is difficult to differentiate which cases specifically involved seniors, but the SPD has received nearly 4,000 reports of fraud in Sheridan since 2008, including cases that were determined not to be fraud through investigation.
From a law enforcement perspective, fraud includes schemes, embezzlement and wire fraud. The cases in which the SPD is most likely to see a resolution are when both the victim and perpetrator reside in Sheridan, Koltiska said.
Phone and internet schemes that originate from other states or countries are challenging to investigate. There’s nothing the SPD can do to hold a perpetrator overseas accountable for their crimes, Koltiska said. At that point, the SPD provides documentation of the alleged fraud to financial institutions with the hope that they will forgive the victim’s financial loss.
In cases involving a family member, dementia or other forms of decreased mental capacity can cause additional challenges for investigating a fraud claim. Koltiska said he has worked fraud causes involving seniors with dementia who were convinced of the validity of a scheme or who weren’t cognizant of what was happening with their finances due to a family member’s influence. Typically, exploitation appears as small, frequent transactions rather than large withdrawals, Jacobson said.
“If you’re doing your job and you know your client the way that you should, then it’s not hard to…probe that client in terms of asking them, in a soft way, the right questions to make sure that that’s a legitimate transaction,” Jacobson said.
It’s not only seniors with minimal technology skills who are susceptible to internet scams, Jacobson said. Tech-savvy people can still be taken in by cleverly disguised schemes.
“I think that it’s probably a lot easier for those — for seniors that are living isolated — to be all that much more susceptible to just the mass inflow of information,” Jacobson said.
Board president at The Hub on Smith and dementia educator Anthony Spiegelberg said most family members have good intentions in caring for their elderly relatives, but it’s the 1% who don’t that can cause significant damage. Maintaining a collaborative group to watch out for potentially exploitative situations can be helpful, Spiegelberg said.
A widowed person might be missing a spouse who routinely managed the finances throughout their marriage, Spiegelberg said. Without that support to navigate financial situations, a senior might more readily accept what looks like luck or help, he said.
Koltiska said if the SPD is notified, they will investigate reports of suspected fraud before a potential victim engages with a scam or sends money that can’t be retrieved.
Wallick said the DFW support center at 307-461-7134 can provide tips for caregivers and answer questions about potential fraud and exploitation cases.
Top 10 financial scams
• Medicare and health insurance scams
• Counterfeit prescription drugs
• Funeral and cemetery scams
• Fraudulent anti-aging products
• Telemarketing/phone scams
• Internet fraud
• Investment schemes
• Homeowner/reverse mortgage scams
• Sweepstakes and lottery scams
• The grandparent scam
*According to the National Council on Aging