They say they should have known better, but what seemed so real and so tempting to them were just versions of that four-letter word: SCAM.
Doreen, a 57-year-old retired math teacher from Westbury, came close to losing money to a man she met online who appeared to be handsome, kind and very interested in her. "I fell in love with his picture," she recalled. "He was absolutely gorgeous. We started writing back and forth and instant messaging, and I had this whole romance going on the Internet."
Within a few weeks, he was asking for money for a business deal in Nigeria that he told her would ensure their future together. But Doreen, a grandmother of five who is long-divorced, didn't bite and ended the relationship without losing money.
For Edward, an 85-year-old attorney, the prospect of helping out an out-of-state lawyer he didn't know nearly drained him of a half-million dollars. All Edward had to do was deposit into his own escrow account the other lawyer's checks, and then wire money out.
"The checks looked absolutely bona fide," Edward said. In reality, they were as phony as the pitch. An alert official at Edward's bank stopped the wire transaction, saving Edward from a huge loss.
What seemed too good to be true for Doreen and Edward, who didn't want their last names used, was just that -- scams in the making that took advantage of their age and state of mind. Law enforcement officials say there are thousands of older people, especially the elderly, who are not as lucky as Doreen and Edward.
According to a U.S. Special Senate Committee on Aging, one out of every five older Americans has been duped by a scam, at a cost of $2.9 billion or more each year. While those 65 and older make up 15 percent of the total population, they represent one-third of all fraud victims, according to Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr.
"The simple fact is that seniors can be particularly vulnerable," said Marshall Trager, government and consumer fraud bureau chief at the Nassau district attorney's office.
And the culprits are not all strangers. The elderly are sometimes victimized by
people who are supposed to be caring for them -- home health aides or family members. "There is a growing
demographic of potential victims -- a bad economy and an aging population who are more and more dependent on caregivers," said Maureen McCormack, chief of the Economic Crimes Bureau of the Suffolk District Attorney's office. "It's a lot of temptation for people who want to swindle."
McCormack had no estimate of how many scam or theft cases she had prosecuted involving caregivers. "It depends on the personality involved and the opportunity," she said.
But the mental and emotional state of the elderly make them easy prey. In fact, longer sentences can be imposed upon those convicted of crimes against victims 60 and older who are considered the "vulnerable elderly" because they have some mental, emotional or physical impairment, McCormack said. Experts say the elderly are targets because they have attractive assets, they tend to be polite to strangers and they may not have the physical or mental wherewithal to resist an aggressive scammer who can easily overwhelm or intimidate them.
Often, the victims are lonely and crave attention at a time when they are feeling increasingly frail and losing control. Once they are scammed, they are reluctant to report it, especially if it involves a relative or someone with control over them such as a professional caregiver or a building superintendent. "They're ashamed that someone has gotten over on them," said Diane Peress, chief of the Economic Crimes Bureau for the Nassau District Attorney's office.
Edward said that at the time he was victimized, he was facing health problems that caused him to let his guard down. "I should have known better. It's very, very upsetting because I have been around a long, long time."
Prosecuting such crimes is not easy because victims sometimes have impaired memory, have stopped keeping good records, and perhaps have not told even their closest relatives about how they have been victimized, officials said.
While some scams that prey on the elderly have been around for years, others -- especially those stemming from the Internet -- have grown in popularity more recently, prosecutors said. Scammers are favoring the Web because they can take advantage of many victims at one time. "Whereas before you could make a phone call to one person, now you can hit tens of thousands," Trager said. "If you can hit 1,000 simultaneously and get even 10 percent to fall victim to the scam, that's a success."
These are examples given by prosecutors of some of the more prevalent scams:
Websites offering discounted prescription drugs Officials warn there is no way to verify the quality. "You think you're getting an incredible discount, but what you're getting are counterfeit drugs that could be bad for your health," Peress explained.
Internet dating and social media Predators monitor these sites and then claim to be someone they're not to attract the interest of an older person looking for companionship, such as Doreen. They use email or instant messaging to cultivate a romance, then ask for money, sometimes as proof of their victim's affections. The victims "use the Internet to find people willing to meet them but in turn leave themselves open to those who would prey on their money," Trager said.
Phishing letters These can come by email or regular mail. The scammer poses as law enforcement, the Internal Revenue Service or a financial institution and implies there is some kind of problem with the victim's finances. "The senior gets upset, and they give out personal information over the Internet, and you get identity theft," Peress said.
Telephone scams Phone calls are still a staple tool among thieves. There is the "Grandma" scam in which a "grandchild" calls and says through tears that he or she is in trouble and needs money wired someplace for bail. They beg the grandparent not to tell the parents, so the grandparent doesn't verify whether the grandchild is really in trouble.
Lottery and sweepstakes scams The victim gets a call or mail notice of a prize that was won. But to get it, the victim must invest money upfront. Vickie Curran, a Nassau assistant district attorney who specializes in senior fraud, said, "It's the quick, easy fix that usually gets people into trouble."
Charities Callers say they represent a charity and are collecting money for a law enforcement group, sick children or even superstorm Sandy victims, and they use high-pressure tactics to convince the elderly to donate. The victim often donates just to get off the phone.
Reverse mortgage "People 62 and over can apply. But there has to be value in the home," said Trager. He had a case of an elderly homeowner who paid three different appraisers to assess her home but yet she later found out she did not even qualify for a reverse mortgage, he said. In another case, the victim paid a company $10,000 to process an application for a reverse mortgage.
It turned out the company never existed.
Advice from District Attorneys
Here are tips from the District Attorney offices in Nassau and Suffolk to avoid getting scammed.
--If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Don't worry about being rude. Hang up the phone.
--Be wary of calls from people you don't know -- especially if they say they are with the financial institution where you do business. If you're worried, hang up and call your bank directly.
--Don't let callers push your emotional buttons. If you become upset, you are more likely to give out personal information that could financially harm you.
--Don't leave mail in an unsecured mailbox.
--Have checks directly deposited into bank accounts.
--Don't give out personal identification numbers (PIN) or credit card numbers. If you use a personal shopper, give them a card with a limited credit line.
--When online, be wary of anyone asking for money.
--Discard letters and delete emails that ask for personal financial information.
--Use common sense and verify the identity of anyone you do business with.
--Avoid paying in full upfront. Make only a partial payment with the rest coming after the work is complete.
--Don't pay in cash. If you are cheated, there is no record to show it. Make payments in increments as work progresses and observe it carefully. No contractor should demand cash.
--Confirm licenses and prior complaints with Consumer Affairs in Nassau and Suffolk counties.
--Avoid contractors who say they are already doing other jobs on the block.
--Demand a written contract with clear financial terms. Avoid verbal agreements, which are difficult to enforce or prosecute if something goes wrong.
--Avoid contractors who suddenly want to add more work.
PRECAUTIONS FOR FAMILY/FRIENDS/CAREGIVERS
--Hire a professional caregiver from a licensed agency that does thorough background and criminal history checks.
--Look for changes in the elderly person's spending patterns, unpaid bills, large amounts of cash or purchases made, especially with ATM cards.
--Watch for indications of impairment, disorientation, poor memory, lack of personal grooming or housekeeping that might be an indication of an inability to make good judgments about finances.
--Be wary if the elderly person wants to transfer power of attorney or other financial control to someone who has suddenly appeared on the scene. Potential scammers will sometimes shower an elderly person with attention, then try to isolate the person from family and friends to exert influence.