Your utilities are about to be cut off. Your grandson is in serious trouble. Delivery of your medication has been held up.
Scammers targeting older adults are experts at throwing their victims off balance by presenting urgent situations that can be solved only by the immediate transfer of cash.
"People make poor decisions when time pressure is imposed, so scammers create a sense of urgency," acting Palo Alto Police Capt. James Reifschneider said.
In moments of emotional stress, people get conned every day, he told this news organization.
"There's a misconception that those who fall for this are unsophisticated or uniquely foolish, but the reality is that people of means, people of education, people who are very, very sharp people of all ages fall for this because the scammers are very, very good at their job — pulling at heartstrings, manipulating. This is a craft they have polished," he said.
Since 2019, the number of reported elder fraud cases in Palo Alto has gone up: Palo Alto police received 43 reports of fraud or abuse of victims 65 and over last year, up from 42 in 2020 and 21 in 2019, said Reifschneider, adding that he believes such incidents are "vastly underreported."
Nationally, 92,371 people over age 60 lost nearly $1.7 billion to elder fraud last year, according to the FBI's 2021 Elder Fraud Report. The dollar losses were up 74% over 2020. The average loss per victim was $18,246, and 3,133 people lost more than $100,000. California reported 12,951 victims over age 60 — the highest number in the nation, according to the FBI report.
The types of fraud highlighted in the report include romance scams, investment fraud, government impersonation and tech support fraud.
Reifschneider said the "grandson scam" also is among those scammers use to manipulate older adults. A caller pretending to be the person's grandson will initiate a brief call suggesting an emergency, such as an arrest.
"The grandma might feel embarrassed that she did not immediately recognize her grandson's voice, and already they're tugging at her heartstrings," Reifschneider said. "They'll frequently tell the grandparent, 'The reason I'm calling you is I know I can trust you, and I don't want Mom and Dad to know.' When a grandparent is told by someone they believe to be their grandchild, 'I have this special relationship with you,' it's very flattering, and it perpetuates the trust on the call, and makes the grandparent feel more inclined to cooperate," he said.
The troubling conversation with the "grandson" is intentionally brief, to avoid detection, before the call is handed over to someone else identified as a police officer, attorney or bail bondsman, who then walks the victim through the payment process.
When victims realize they've been taken in, they feel foolish, embarrassed and often choose not to report the fraud, he said.
Sometimes there also is a fear among older adults that their children or grandchildren will conclude that their faculties are fading and will push to reduce their independence.
"One might think, 'I wouldn't fall for this — I'd recognize my grandchild's voice if he called me,'" Reifschneider said. "But I'll tell you that scammers wouldn't engage in this type of thing if it didn't work."
While the elderly certainly are targeted, the truth is that these types of scams happen to people of all ages, Reifschneider said. Scammers might be making dozens or hundreds of calls to find one victim.
"You don't have to be successful very often in order for it to be lucrative," he said.
The Palo Alto Police Department website describes some of the most common scams — including telemarketing schemes, credit card fraud, IRS, utility and grandson scams — and steps people can take to protect themselves.
Scammers are rarely caught and prosecuted, Reifschneider said, adding that the constant changing of phone numbers from which they call makes it difficult for police to write search warrants.
Technology allows scammers to mimic local phone numbers while calling from anywhere. They also employ "spoofing" products to make it appear the phone call came from the police or utilities department. "Do not rely on your caller ID to validate who's calling you — that's unfortunately a technological issue that's out there," he said.
He advises people to be leery of any unsolicited phone call from a business or person asking for money on the spot.
Reifschneider suggests people not answer calls from numbers they don't recognize. Legitimate callers will leave a voicemail, he said.
"Any time someone is pressuring you to make a decision or provide personal information by creating some sense of urgency, that's a red flag," he said. "They're trying to force you into a bad decision by making it an emergency."
Scam victims frequently tell police they had an instinct that the situation wasn't right, but fought the feeling because of time pressure or emotional manipulation, he said.
"Follow your instincts, even if it's just insisting on taking a time out so you can ask your spouse or family member, or contact the police department," he said.
Police will take reports of fraud and investigate leads, if there are any, he said. They also can forward cases to other jurisdictions, including federal agencies such as the FBI, the Secret Service and the Postal Inspection Service.
The federally maintained Internet Crime Complaint Center, at ic3.gov, allows victims to report an incident, which is then screened and forwarded to the appropriate agency.
Since arrests and prosecutions of scammers is difficult, public education on how people can avoid becoming a victim is key, Reifschneider said.
• Romance Scam: Scammers pose as interested romantic partners through dating websites to capitalize on victims' desire to find companions.
• Tech Support Scam: Scammers pose as technology support representatives and offer to fix non-existent computer issues — gaining remote access to victims' devices.
• Grandparent Scam: Scammers pose as a relative claiming to be in immediate dire financial need.
• Government Impersonation Scam: Scammers pose as government employees and threaten to arrest or prosecute victims unless they agree to provide funds or other payments.
• Sweepstakes/Charity/Lottery Scam: Scammers claim to work for legitimate charitable organizations to gain victims' trust. Or they claim their targets have won a foreign lottery or sweepstake, which they can collect for a "fee."
• Home Repair Scam: Scammers appear in person and charge homeowners in advance for home improvement services that they never provide.
• TV/Radio Scam: Scammers target potential victims using illegitimate advertisements about legitimate services, such as reverse mortgages or credit repair.
• Family/Caregiver Scam: Scammers are relatives or acquaintances of the victims and take advantage of them or otherwise get their money.
• Internet or financial fraud - FBI Internet Crime Complaint Center: ic3.gov
Any person aged 60 or older who has fallen victim to some type of financial fraud or internet scheme, can file a report with the FBI.
• Phone scams - Palo Alto Police Department: cityofpaloalto.org | 650-329-2413
Adults who have fallen victim to a phone scam in Palo Alto can call or file an online report with the Police Department.
For emergencies or to report a crime in progress, call 911.
— Fraud scheme information provided by the FBI