Last week was designated National Crime Victims' Week, a time to reflect on the consequences of crime on victims, and an opportunity to raise awareness of crime prevention.
One growing segment of crime victims is seniors. I frequently receive calls from friends whose parents have been victimized by a telephone or online fraud scheme. As a result, the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Eastern District of Michigan is partnering with our state court counterparts to address elder fraud.
A variety of schemes are commonly perpetrated against seniors. One category of fraud targeting seniors is identity fraud. Criminals will contact victims by telephone or email with a message that the victim has won a contest or that a problem has been identified on the victim's income tax return. The victim is then asked for sensitive private information, such as a Social Security number or bank account number. With this information, a criminal can clean out a bank account, run up credit card debt and ruin the victim's credit rating.
A second category of fraud that often targets seniors is investor fraud. The U.S. Attorney's Office has prosecuted cases against investment advisors promising high rates of return. Seniors are often targeted by people with whom they share some "affinity," such as attendance at the same church or club or family acquaintance. This affinity lulls the victim into trusting the perpetrator without carefully scrutinizing the investment. As in most traditional Ponzi schemes, early investors are paid off with the money provided by new investors, so the investment appears to be as good as advertised. Over time, though, as new investors outnumber early investors, the scheme comes tumbling down, the fraud is exposed and victims are left without their money. Any investment return that sounds too good to be true probably is.
A third category of crimes against seniors relates to mortgage fraud. Seniors are sometimes enticed to enter into "reverse mortgages," in which a buyer makes a monthly payment to the homeowner, who may continue to live in the home. It sounds like a great deal, but the homeowner needs to read the fine print. Sometimes, if the homeowner passes away, even after only a few payments, the ownership of the home goes to the buyer without further payment to the homeowner's estate.
None of these crimes will ever be eradicated, but with increased awareness, can be prevented. For example, experts offer these tips for avoiding fraud:
• Don’t provide personal information in response to a request you receive online or by telephone.
• If you use social media, don’t share your birthdate or let people know when you are on vacation.
• Promptly collect the mail that you receive in your mailbox. Identity thieves steal bank and credit card statements from mailboxes.
• Shred documents that contain personal information, like bank statements or credit card statements, before putting them out in the garbage.
• Read the fine print for mortgage and investment opportunities. Don’t trust the investment advisor just because he or she was recommended by someone you know.
More tips for protecting your data security are available at StopFraud.gov.
Barbara L. McQuade
United States Attorney
Eastern District of Michigan