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Scams targeting seniors are on the rise nationwide; how to recognize and avoid them

Assistant United States Attorney Kathryn Dieruf and FBI special agent Chelsea Holliday present a case study on a romance scam targeting a 72-year-old Kentucky woman.
Clay Wallace
Assistant United States Attorney Kathryn Dieruf and FBI special agent Chelsea Holliday present a case study on a romance scam targeting a 72-year-old Kentucky woman.

In the FBI’s recently released Elder Fraud Annual Report for 2023, the average fraud victim over the age of 60 was estimated to have lost over $33,000.

Last year, elder Kentuckians lost $12.8 million to scams. Special agent in charge of the Louisville Field Office for the FBI Michael Stansbury said that number is set to double this year, with $12.7 million already lost by May.

“Some of the key takeaways that we get from this report are that this is not a crime that we’ve got under control,” said Stansbury. “This is not something that we’re starting to see with other crimes as declining. It’s continuing to increase.”

In Kentucky, the most common scams targeting elders were investment fraud, tech support fraud, and romance schemes.

In a typical investment fraud scam, criminals will try to convince victims that they’re able to store assets to keep them safe, or to help them multiply. They may impersonate a government official, asking victims to buy and ship them gold bars to be stored.

“No one from the government is ever going to call you and say give me your money I’ll take care of it,” said Stansbury.

Investment fraudsters may also try to sell victims on a lucrative cryptocurrency opportunity, promising steep returns in a short timespan.

In a tech support fraud operation, the criminal often first initiates contact by phishing - sending out fraudulent messages under the guise of a reputable business or organization. They often appear as emails claiming that the target’s computer security software has expired, or that a virus has been detected and payment is required to get rid of it.

In the case of romance fraud, criminals cultivate a long-term relationship with the victim, gaining their trust over months of conversations. Often, they pretend to have jobs which require them to be overseas and traveling frequently, ensuring they never meet the victim face-to-face.

That’s what happened to Victim 1, an unnamed 72-year-old divorced Kentucky woman whose scamming was presented by the FBI as a case study. FBI special agent Chelsea Holliday said it began when the scammer, posing as a military officer, met the victim on a dating website.

“He said he was a soldier in Syria, and that he loved her,” said Holliday. “They talked for months everyday, and they struck up a romantic relationship and eventually said they were going to get married. So he told her, ‘Well, I have to pay out of my military contract and we’d need to buy wedding rings and I’d need to buy a flight overseas.’ He gave her all these examples, all these things that he would need money for.”

The victim ultimately sent the scammer almost $200,000 in cash, wire transfers, and gift cards before contacting the Attorney General’s office, who immediately began investigating the wire transfers, tracking the transactions to three individuals - all Nigerian nationals living in the United States. Bank records from Nigeria showed the three men sent money to the same individual in Nigeria at around the same time Victim 1 was scammed. All four subjects were indicted for conspiracy to commit money laundering and/or conspiracy to commit wire fraud. The Nigerian man who received the money was arrested while applying for a visa to the United States and extradited.

However, not all fraud operations result in prosecution. Scams like these are challenging to investigate for a variety of reasons. Some co-conspirators receiving money are mules - fellow victims with no knowledge or intent to commit fraud; victims are often not in close proximity to scammers, who may be in other states or countries; messages between scammers are often encrypted; and, according to Assistant United States Attorney Kathryn Dieruf, some victims may not even be aware that they’re being scammed.

“They believe so wholeheartedly in the relationship that they’ve formed that even when an FBI agent comes knocking on their door, it takes quite a bit of convincing,” said Dieruf. “We have taken cases to trial where our victims still believed that they were in love with a certain person who did not exist.”

Reports of internet fraud targeting seniors doubled from 2021 to 2023

Dieruf said some red flags of these scams include the insistence of an urgent need for money, and emphasis on secrecy, a refusal to meet in person, and a demand for cryptocurrency, gold bars, or prepaid debit cards.

“No one legitimate is going to ask you to pay for anything with a prepaid debit card,” said Dieruf. “That is not a form of payment that the government asks for. That is not a form of payment that most legitimate businesses ask for.”

Anyone, of any age, can be targeted by internet scams, but people over the age of 60 are at highest risk. Criminals target them in hopes of tapping into funds set aside for their retirement. When criminals are successful, victims can be left with nothing.

Kentucky seniors are advised to be alert, ask questions, and take their time with decisions involving finances. If someone promises a too-good-to-be-true investment, or demands immediate payment for an emergency situation, hang up and talk with a trusted friend or family member.

“This is not something we can ‘law enforcement’ our way out of,” said Stansbury. “The best way to solve this problem is to educate the public, educate the victims, and hopefully get them to not click on that link, to not make that phone call. When someone calls them and it doesn’t sound quite right, that they stop, pick up the phone, call your local police department, and call the FBI office.”

If you have been scammed - act quickly. By reporting early, law enforcement has a better chance of recovering lost funds and protecting against future scams.

Report internet crime to the FBI at ic3.gov

Kentucky Attorney General’s Office Consumer Protection/Scam Hotline

National Elder Fraud Hotline