Violet Christensen is 90-years-old and lives alone in her home in Minnesota with a telephone. That's about all the information the out-of-country phone scammers needed to get to work on her.
According to Christensen's daughter Vickie Popovich, 60, her mom suffers from mild dementia. She is able to continue to live alone only because Popovich brings over meals and checks on her mom at least five times a day. Popovich quit her job several years ago to devote herself to taking care of her mother and her in-laws and by all accounts, she's on top of things. She pays their bills, makes sure they take their medicines on time, are well-fed, their homes kept clean and orderly and that they never miss a medical appointment or an opportunity to socialize at church or with other friends.
Yet even she was surprised by the small window of opportunity that opened wide enough for her mother to come within a hair of losing everything in a phone scam. All it took was a few hours and the skill to convince an elderly woman that she was sufficiently competent to take care of updating a file herself and that she shouldn't "burden" her daughter with such a small problem. Talk about hitting the right trigger points.
Popovich learned of the phone scam when she made her regular 4 p.m. call to her mother. Popovich was cooking dinner and called to let Christensen know that she'd be bringing over some spaghetti for her at around 5 p.m. But the daughter sensed that her mom was a little distressed and asked her what was going on.
"She said, 'Oh, I've just been dealing with these people on the phone all day,' and my heart sank," said Popovich. Popovich immediately asked "WHAT people?"
Christensen told her that she had gotten a call from a very nice man who said Medicare needed to update her file or she would lose her benefits on Monday. When Christensen told him that her daughter "handles all that for me," he told her how it was something she was "capable" of handling herself, that he knew she was a "very capable" woman -- repeating it over and over in a trusting manner. He also said it wouldn't be right to "burden" her overworked daughter with this, something so easy for Christensen to do by herself.
"They knew precisely what to say to her," Popovich said. The information the caller requested included her bank account and routing numbers, her Social Security number, address and other information that would allow identity theft and a withdrawal of Christensen's funds.
Popovich turned off the spaghetti pot and raced over to her mother's. On a pad near the phone, she found account numbers and personal information scribbled in her mother's handwriting. A check of the caller ID on the phone showed the same number had phoned nine times in two hours. Popovich surmises that her mother took the first call and then went to retrieve the information for the scammer, who called back to get it. She transposed numbers once or twice on the pad, which led the scammer to keep calling her back.
Popovich called the bank immediately and closed her mother's accounts.
"I caught it in time," she said, "I was up to midnight making calls and working online" to mitigate the damages, she said. She has since enrolled her mother in various programs that freeze your accounts at the first sign of suspicious activity and monitor your credit reports automatically. She reported the incident to the sheriff's department, primarily so that if suspicious activity was determined later on she would have proof that confidential information had been solicited unlawfully.
But what the sheriff told her was disturbing: Don't expect anyone to get caught here and don't be surprised if there are more attempts to scam your mother.
The elderly are ripe targets, he said. The call her mother got was most likely random. Scammers make hundreds of calls listening for an elderly voice to answer; when one does, the scammers turn the phone over to a confidence artist to seal the deal. Popovich changed her mother's phone to an unlisted number. "It probably won't matter, but I felt I had to do something.
"I stood up in church and told about what happened. I was shocked but at least six other people came up and said they had had elderly friends and relatives with similar stories," Popovich said. In a few cases, the scammers pretended they were the senior's grandchild stranded on spring break, robbed and left with no money to get home. Can Granddad please wire some money?
The most disturbing element for Popovich? "They made my mother feel like she was doing such a good job by answering all these questions by herself. They exploited her worries about dependency and fed into her fears of not being able to manage her life any more. It's despicable."
According to The MetLife study of Elder Financial Abuse published in June 2011, elder financial abuse results in an estimated annual financial loss of $2.9 billion. Home Instead Senior Care, the nation's largest provider of in-home companion care, recently announced the launch of its Protect Seniors from FraudSM program -- an initiative to provide older Americans and their families with information and tools to help protect against con artists targeting the elderly.
Among their tips:
* Shred documents useful to criminals, such as bank statements, credit card statements and offers,
* Register on the national Do-Not-Call Registry and hang up on all solicitation calls to avoid phone scams.
* Be wary of individuals who have newly befriended you or a loved one, and make an effort to get to know them.