Scammers are robbing billions of dollars from older Americans every year

The scammers win.

Sophisticated criminals abroad steal tens of billions of dollars from Americans every year. This crime wave is expected to grow as the U.S. population ages and technologies like AI make it easier than ever to commit fraud and get away with it.

According to Kathy Stokes, director of fraud prevention for AARP’s Fraud Watch Network, internet and phone fraud have increased “exponentially” and police and prosecutors are overwhelmed, catching and convicting relatively few perpetrators.

William Bortz lost nearly $700,000 in an elaborate scam. AP

Victims rarely get their money back, such as seniors who lose their entire savings to romance scams, grandparent scams, tech support fraud, and other common scams.

“We’re at a crisis level in terms of fraud in society,” Stokes said. “So many people have joined the fray because it’s pretty easy to be a criminal. You don’t have to play by any rules. And you can make a lot of money, and the chances of you getting caught are very slim.”

A recent case in Ohio, in which an 81-year-old man was targeted by a scammer and reportedly responded with violence, illustrates the challenge for law enforcement.

Police say the man shot and killed an Uber driver after mistakenly believing she was involved in a plot to collect $12,000 in supposed bail money for a family member. The driver fell victim to the same scammer, who was sent to the home halfway between Dayton and Columbus to pick up a package for delivery, authorities said.

Homeowner William Brock has been charged with murder in connection with the March 25 fatal shooting in Lo-Letha Hall, but the con artist who threatened Brock over the phone and set the tragic events in motion remains at large more than three months later.

Brock denied the charges and said he feared for his life.

Some older scam victims react violently, like William Brock, who pulled a gun on someone he suspected of being a scammer. Clark County Sheriff’s Office

Benefit scammers

Online and telephone fraud has become so common that law enforcement and adult protection services do not have the resources to keep up with it all.

“It’s kind of like drinking from a fire hose,” said Brady Finta, a former FBI agent who oversaw elder fraud investigations. “There’s just so much, logistically and rationally, that it’s almost impossible to overcome right now.”

Scams can be difficult to investigate, especially when they originate overseas. Stolen money can quickly be converted into hard-to-trace cryptocurrencies or transferred to offshore bank accounts.

According to Paul Greenwood, who has prosecuted elder financial abuse cases in San Diego for 22 years, some police departments take financial scams less seriously than other crimes, leaving victims discouraged and demoralized.

“There are a lot of law enforcement officials who think that because a victim is voluntarily sending money through gift cards or through wire transfers or buying crypto, that they’re actually engaging in a consensual transaction,” said Greenwood, who travels the country teaching law enforcement how to spot fraud. “And that’s a huge mistake, because it’s not. It’s not consensual. They’ve been scammed.”

According to Greenwood, federal prosecutors typically only get involved in fraud cases when the amount involved reaches a certain level.

The U.S. Justice Department says it does not set a general monetary threshold for federal prosecutions of elder financial abuse. But it confirmed that some of the 93 U.S. attorneys’ offices across the country may set their own thresholds, prioritizing cases involving more victims or a greater financial impact. Federal prosecutors file hundreds of elder fraud and abuse cases each year.

The Federal Trade Commission says the “vast majority” of fraud goes unreported, with victims often reluctant to come forward.

A 74-year-old woman who was recently charged with robbing a credit union north of Cincinnati was the victim of an online scam, her family said. Authorities say they believe the woman was the victim of a scammer, but there is no evidence she filed a formal police report.

The family of a 74-year-old woman who robbed a credit union claims she was the victim of a scam. Fairfield Township Police Department

“These people are very good at what they do, and they’re very good at scamming people and getting money out of them,” said Fairview Township, Ohio, police Sergeant Brandon McCroskey, who investigated the robbery. “I’ve seen people almost fight with the police and the bank tellers because … they believe in their head that they’ve got to get this money out.”

A devastating plan

Older people as a group have more wealth and are an attractive target for scammers. The impact can be devastating, as many of these victims are past their working years and do not have much time to recoup losses.

According to a recent FBI report, complaints about senior fraud to the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center rose 14% last year, while losses increased 11% to $3.4 billion.

The number of complaints about fraud among the elderly has increased by 14% in the past year. Getty Images

Other estimates put the annual loss much higher.

A 2023 AARP study calculated that Americans over 60 lose $28.3 billion to fraud each year. The Federal Trade Commission, trying to account for unreported losses, estimated that fraudsters stole as much as $137 billion in 2022, including $48 billion from senior citizens. The authors of that study acknowledged a “substantial degree of uncertainty.”

In San Diego, 80-year-old William Bortz said criminals stole his family’s savings of nearly $700,000 in an elaborate scheme involving a nonexistent Amazon order, a fake “refund processing center” in Hong Kong, falsified bank statements and instructions that Bortz “sync bank accounts” to get his money back.

Bortz’s con man was relentless and convincing, pestering him with dozens of phone calls and at one point even taking control of his computer.

Although Bortz has been the victim of a crime, he struggles with self-reproach.

“I now understand why so much elder abuse fraud is never reported. Because when you look back, you think, ‘How could I have been so stupid?’” said Bortz, who retired after a career in banking, financial services and real estate.

His daughter, Ave Williams, said local police and the FBI were diligent in their efforts to track down the offshore scammer and recover the money, but they hit multiple dead ends. The family blames Bortz’s bank, which Williams says ignored red flags and facilitated multiple large wire transfers by her father over the course of eight days. The bank denied wrongdoing, and the family’s lawsuit against the bank was dismissed.

“The scammers are getting better,” Williams said. “We need our law enforcement to get the tools they need, and we need our banks to get better because they are the first line of defense.”

The FBI faces many obstacles in tracking down fraudsters from foreign countries. AP

The Justice Department says the industry needs to do more and that the U.S. cannot solve the problem through litigation.

“The private sector — including the technology, retail, banking, fintech, and telecommunications sectors — must make it harder for fraudsters to defraud victims and harder for them to launder victims’ proceeds,” the agency said in a statement to The Associated Press.

A way forward

Banking industry officials told a Senate subcommittee in May that they are investing heavily in new technologies to stop fraud, “and some of them show promise.” The American Bankers Association says it is working on a program to coordinate real-time communications between banks to better flag suspicious activity and reduce the flow of stolen money.

But industry officials said banks can’t prevent fraud on their own. They said the U.S. needs an overarching national strategy to combat fraudsters, calling current federal efforts disjointed and uncoordinated.

Finta, a former FBI agent who founded a nonprofit called the National Elder Fraud Coordination Center, said law enforcement and industry need to work together to combat fraud more quickly and efficiently. The goal is to improve cooperation between law enforcement and major companies like Walmart, Amazon and Google.

“There are very, very smart people and there are very powerful, wealthy corporations that want to see this stopped,” he said. “So we have an opportunity, I think, to make a bigger impact and help our brothers and sisters in law enforcement who are struggling with this tsunami of fraud.”

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