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When scammers prey on elderly victims
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When scammers prey on elderly victims

Amy Handlin’s elderly relative accumulated piles of scam mail on the kitchen table and every other surface in his home — “proof” that he was the winner of thousands of “prizes.”
Amy Handlin’s elderly relative accumulated piles of scam mail on the kitchen table and every other surface in his home — “proof” that he was the winner of thousands of “prizes.”

When a close relative of mine recently died, our family didn’t publish an obituary. His synagogue friends found out via the Jewish grapevine, but they were baffled. Didn’t we want members of the organizations he loved, like the Jewish War Veterans and B’nai B’rith, to pay their respects? Why wouldn’t we publicize his many accomplishments, especially in the Jewish community?

By many measures, he was extraordinarily lucky. Educated at Harvard Law School and successful in a long career, he enjoyed good health, attentive children, and a wide social circle well into his 90s. He was a widower and far from wealthy, but had saved enough money to stay indefinitely in his comfortable home — until, that is, he experienced a new type of “luck.”

The envelopes began showing up in his mailbox about two years ago. Stamped URGENT and festooned with official-looking insignia, they contained effusive letters of congratulations for being a first-place winner of contests around the world. Never mind that he couldn’t remember entering such contests or that the letters were rife with grammatical mistakes. What mattered, according to a typical missive, was that his winnings were “certified” and “independently confirmed.” Among the most recent prizes were $5 million in cash and a 2014 Mercedes.

To claim this bounty, he was required to pay various fees. For example, obtaining the car entailed a “legality processing fee” of $3,860. The cash award involved $3,450 to purchase something called a “P1-14 Stamp of Approval.” He was also told to call a special phone number and provide credit and bank account information as proof of his identity. 

Still, it was exciting to be a winner. It made him feel special. Even better, many senders enclosed checks to cover the upfront expenditures; he never noticed when the checks bounced.

So he trekked to the bank or to Western Union to authorize wire transfers. Often he’d withdraw large amounts of cash, which he then sent via FedEx — as per instructions enclosed with the award — to an address usually identified as the office of an attorney or a “prize agent.” 

Then the phone calls began — first a trickle, then a flood of pleas for money that eventually numbered in the hundreds every week. The callers, claiming to represent innocuous charities like “Help the Helpless,” were so cheery and chatty that he looked forward to hearing from them. They engaged him in lengthy conversations about where he lived, what he owned, and which causes he supported — most related to Judaism. Over time, he responded with increasing frequency to those with Jewish-sounding names or whose “law firms” were called something like “Greenberg and Lipschitz.” The amounts he sent were modest at first — $25, $35, or $50 — but rapidly ballooned into four or even five figures when he began writing checks to dozens of recipients on a weekly basis. 

The family found out by accident, when a son noticed multiple FedEx envelopes ready for pickup in his father’s home. It was bad enough to discover that he was routinely mailing envelopes full of cash all over the globe; worse, the older man saw nothing wrong with it. When the son questioned why he was sending money to unknown “attorneys” and “agents,” his response was “Well, they’re Jewish” — as though this were a kind of kosher certification. After a lifetime of giving, he was unable to grasp that cruel, depraved crooks were exploiting his generosity. 

Over his protests, his children were forced to take over his finances, change his phone number, and stop home delivery of his mail. In his final months, he was plagued with anxiety about the payments he had promised and missed the daily contact with his “friends.” Here’s why there was no obituary: Family members feared that scammers who saw it would steal his identity, hack into his accounts, or burglarize his home. I haven’t named him because they continue to worry.

Such predators steal $2.9 billion each year, according to the MetLife Mature Market Institute. The nonprofit Investor Protection Trust estimates that one out of every five Americans over 65 is a victim. Even when otherwise self-reliant and savvy, seniors get taken in by the slick approach — and often by a need for diversion or attention. While no one has quantified the impact of these crimes on the Jewish community, scammers are clearly delighted to profit from our tradition of philanthropy. 

New Jersey has strong laws against financial fraud. But because most of the predators operate offshore, they are largely beyond the reach of law enforcement. As a result, experts agree that the best weapon is education. While there will always be people who fall for the fakery and flattery, many can be persuaded to think twice by getting solid information about the scams. Studies suggest the information is especially effective when delivered in person — which can build on the same need for social interaction that buoys the scammers. 

My goal in telling this story is to kick off just such an informational campaign. I am asking state associations of professionals and businesspeople — those who regularly interact with older adults, like health care providers, pharmacists, and bank personnel — to download a brochure that, at my request, will soon be available from the Department of Consumer Affairs. I hope that synagogues and other Jewish organizations will participate, too. By calling seniors’ attention to this material and taking a few moments to explain it, participants can thrust this shadowy underworld into the open.

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