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Family emergency scheme targets senior citizens

The scheme senior citizens are most likely to encounter. Plus, the one step to take online that will help stop scheme calls.

SAN ANTONIO — Senior citizens are the most frequent targets of schemes. Exploitation of older adults can be especially devastating because they often cannot earn back the money they lose.

It often starts with a call.

“Our poor elderly population are just really being bombarded,” said Michael Skiba, known as Dr. Fraud.

He said almost 2,000 robocalls go out every minute. Many times, senior citizens find themselves on the other end of the phone. 

They are targeted for several reasons:

“Studies show they have a tendency to remain on the phone longer,” Skiba said. “They have maybe a higher degree of trust. They might be a bit lonely, so they might just enjoy the conversation.”

One of the most popular calls seniors get is from fraudsters disguised as a family member calling because of an emergency needing money.

“They’ll call posing as grandchild who’s in jail or who’s been in a terrible car accident,” said Stacey Nash, the head of fraud prevention for USAA. “They’ll be cases where they’ll call posing as a lawyer or a paramedic of the child who’s been in an accident.”

She said even her job title couldn't protect her parents.

”My parents, who do know what I do for a living; I am in fraud all the time, protecting people all the time,” she said. “They’re older. They’re trusting. They might have the biggest hearts out there. They got a call a couple of years ago and it was somebody who was calling to say that I was in trouble and they needed to go to a Western Union and send money. They did. They got in the car. It was early in the morning; they drove.”

Her parents did not end up losing any money, though.

“Thank goodness the employee at Western Union recognized this pattern and encouraged them to stop and call me and see if everything was OK,” said Nash. “They did. It made me realize just how susceptible anybody is to these scams.”

Urgency and secrecy are two important parts of this scheme. Crooks posing as loved one will say not to tell anyone they are in trouble, then tell them to send money immediately.

“They want you to move fast,” Nash said. “They encourage you to move fast. 'This is an emergency. You need to do this right now. You can’t wait.' Typically, they’ll go to a place where it’s just dire.”

Instead, move fast to do this:

“Hang up the phone and call the person that knows that’s going to be able to actually validate if this is a real, true situation,” Nash said. “The first question can simply be: 'Is everything OK?’”

While you may be told to keep what is happening a secret, it is best to double check there is an emergency before sending money.

“There’s a delicate balance between keeping this private and actually ensuring that you’re safe and you’re not sending money to a criminal,” said Nash. “What I would say is the second somebody says, ‘Don’t tell anyone,’ that’s a red flag.”

Next, never pay anyone by wire transfer, money transfer apps like Venmo and Cash App, or gift cards.

“That’s very common,” Sikba said. “It’s a big flag.”

Also, consider a social media makeover. That is often where crooks find information that lends legitimacy to their schemes.

“They can figure out what high school you went to, where you grew up, how old you are,” Nash said. “All of this information is available to depending on how restrictive or not restrictive your privacy setting are.”

“Protecting your social media and looking what you’re actually posting is really the key to prevention, because what happens is the more we post, the most susceptible we become to fraud,” Skiba added.

Schemers will use your loved ones against you to get money. Make it harder for them by limiting information they can find online. 

The Federal Trade Commission offers these tips on avoiding this scheme.

If you have a question for eyewitness wants to know, email us at EWTK@KENS5.com or call us as 210-377-8647.