“I’m in Europe and my passport was stolen. I can’t leave the country unless you wire me $3,000.”
A grandparent receiving such an email from “Josh,” the name of a grandson, might want to act quickly to help. Some send the money. But for Deborah Zuckerman, program manager for Montgomery County’s “Senior Financial Exploitation Prevention Initiative,” such emails are the “Granny Scam.” This is just one example of the abuses against seniors occurring in the Washington metropolitan area.
Financial exploitation is the unauthorized use of another person’s funds or property. “It is known as the crime of the 21st century,” said Zuckerman. An estimated $3 billion is stolen from seniors every year, according to the National Center for Elder Abuse.
Montgomery County’s prevention program began in 2011 because of concern in the state attorney’s office about the increasing number of financial abuse cases. Zuckerman leads the effort to educate the public, work with other concerned agencies, and to screen and investigate cases.
“This is an issue of great importance to the state’s attorney, and we are trying to marshal all resources to be most effective. Prevention is really important because when money is gone, it’s difficult to get it back,” she said.
As another example of exploitation, she cited the “foreign lottery.” Residents have been told they have won a lottery in a foreign country, and they need to pay taxes in order to receive the winnings. Even though a person may not have entered any foreign lottery, the idea of winning one has lured people to pay thousands of dollars for alleged taxes, and no winnings result.
Exploitation also occurs for home improvements. An unlicensed worker might use scare tactics, saying there is an urgent need for tree trimming or to fix a roof. The result can be shoddy work or not finishing at all after charging a high price up front.
To protect against such abuses, Zuckerman advises, “Don’t give money to strangers. Use well-recommended and licensed home contractors and work with people you trust.”
Noting a growing number of cases of stolen or forged checks, she added, “Always review bank and credit card statements. If you see something unauthorized or suspicious, contact the bank or credit card company.”
Zuckerman explained that people often don’t report an abuse because they are embarrassed or reluctant to blame once-trusted friends and family members. “The earlier financial abuse is reported and the person is caught, it is easier to get the money back,” she said.
A new Maryland law in 2012 requires financial institutions to report instances of financial exploitation of senior customers. If bank employees suspect that a financial abuse is occurring, they now have to report it to adult protective services, local law enforcement or the state’s attorney office.
Montgomery County has resources to help and to stop these cases. To report a scam or financial abuse of an older adult, contact the local police or call 240-777-3000. Callers can remain anonymous.
Judith Welles, a local writer, formerly chaired the Montgomery County Commission on Aging.