A new weapon in the fight against scammers who target seniors was unveiled Wednesday at “Scam Jam,” a Seattle event drawing more than 250 seniors to the Museum of Flight.
Under the “Fraud Watch Network,” being set up by AARP Washington in conjunction with law-enforcement agencies, people can sign up to be notified about scam methods being used on potential victims in this area.
“It would be a radar system on the lookout for scammers,” said Doug Shadel, state director for AARP, which organized Monday’s event. “It would get the word out quickly about what’s going on.”
Consumer fraud is a multi-billion-dollar industry in the United States, but the precise dollar figure is unknown. Many victims are too embarrassed to admit they were duped.
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But it’s clear seniors are a prime target: In a 2011 AARP survey of fraud victims, people over age 55 accounted for 81 percent of all investment-fraud victims and 84 percent of lottery-scam victims.
Wednesday’s “Scam Jam” also drew King County sheriff John Urquhart and Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson, who praised AARP’s fraud-fighting efforts.
Ferguson said he knows firsthand that seniors are attractive fraud targets.
When he recently visited his mother — a widow in her 80s — she showed him an email she had just received, supposedly from a woman she knows, who said she was traveling in England but lost her purse, passport and cash — and needed funds wired right away.
In this case, a simple call to the woman’s home proved the email a hoax; she had never left the country. But Ferguson said other potential targets might not be as fortunate.
Being aware of a threat in advance greatly increases someone’s ability to fend off that threat, Shadel told those in Wednesday’s packed auditorium.
He said swindlers and con artists often rely on the element of surprise, getting the victim to take an action without fully thinking it through.
He advised seniors to prepare a “refusal script” ahead of time to use when someone calls with an offer too good to be true and shifts into a hard-sell mode.
Shadel offered sample scripts, including, “Let me put you on the speaker phone so my lawyer can hear you,” but acknowledged a simple, “We don’t accept over-the-phone solicitations,” could do the trick.
Scams that have hit seniors here and across the country include the “Jamaican lottery scam,” in which victims are told they have won a huge prize in a Jamaican lottery but must send in money or give a credit-card number to handle taxes or a processing fee.
Lottery scams often target middle- to low-income residents, while investment schemes often aim for more lucrative targets, promising foolproof investments if shares are purchased immediately.
Shadel said an ex-con who had specialized in those ploys once told him, “I only called doctors and lawyers.”
Even if a tiny fraction of the people called fall for a scam, that’s enough to make a profit for the scammers.
Jean Mathisen, director of AARP’s local fraud-fighting call center, said an FBI agent told her that the Jamaican lottery scam is largely responsible for 30,000 phone calls a day made from Jamaica to the United States.
People can sign up now for the AARP fraud alerts at 1-800-646-2283. Soon, they will be able to do so through an AARP website and will be able to specify how they would like to receive the alerts — by phone or email. Although seniors are the primary concern, the service is to be available to people of any age.
Mathisen said if a friend or relative tells you they’ve been the victims of a scam, tell them you’re sorry it happened; don’t criticize or ridicule them.
Fraud victims lose much more than money, she said. Their fundamental well-being is shaken, and they can be subject to depression, embarrassment and guilt. Some may have to cut back on groceries or medications to make up the lost money.
She urged those at Wednesday’s session to call everyone they know, reminding them to be vigilant against scams. Those one-on-one contacts can be an effective crime-fighting tool, she said.
Ferguson said victims of consumer fraud should call the AG’s Consumer Protection Division at 1-800-551-4636.
Jack Broom: 206-464-2222 or firstname.lastname@example.org