Rosen: Elder fraud and the pandemic
Seniors are more susceptible to elder fraud amid the COVID-19 pandemic. File photo.

Alone in their homes, elders are valiantly trying to protect themselves and others against the virus. In doing so, they are at enhanced risk from another threat — scammers sneaking into our grandparents’ isolated lives through the phone, the mail or the internet.

Across the nation, elders lose billions of dollars annually to fraud. Since the pandemic started, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the FBI have reported a spike in elder fraud driven in part by COVID-related schemes.

I am committed to help inoculate our elders against this new danger. As with COVID-19, we must educate ourselves against financial elder abuse to slow and stop it.

For years, Deputy District Attorney Cherie Bourlard has been a champion for elders in my office, raising awareness against the latest, heartless frauds and relentlessly prosecuting scammers who target the vulnerable aged. Cherie explains that isolation due to COVID-19 has added psychological stress to elders, and not just those who are already suffering from declining mental capacity or dementia. As seniors isolate, scammers offer help in running errands or performing services, like landscaping and construction. Instead of helping “grandma,” they take off with her money.

COVID-19 may force scammers to be physically distanced from their intended victims, but stealing from elders through telephone and internet scams is happening at a devastating rate.

Cherie counts the many kinds of scams that are targeted at the elderly. Isolated elders are duped by the prospect of winning a lottery they never entered and persuaded to wire money or purchase gift cards or mail cash as payment for nonexistent upfront fees in the hopes of receiving their “jackpot.”

Then there is the “Caller-in-Distress” scam where the elder is tricked into believing their adult grandchild is in jail for drunk driving and needs immediate cash to bail out. Another scam on the rise targets seniors who want to sell their timeshares, convincing them to pay off a mortgage or lease or pay “fees,” by wiring money to a scammer’s bank account that closes as soon as the money is received. Topping the list of scams are “work-from-home” schemes, internet romances, fake check scams and investment scams

Keep in mind, not all perpetrators of elder fraud are strangers or cyber criminals — among the crooks are family members, in-laws, caretakers and “friends,” too.

Here is Cherie’s sage advice to help prevent elder fraud and ways to help our senior citizens if they become victims:

  • If you suspect elder financial abuse, report it to the Santa Clara County Adult Protective Services (APS) at 1 (800) 414-2002 and to your local law enforcement agency.
  • The Santa Clara County District Attorney’s Office has an Elder Fraud Hotline at 1 (855) DA-ELDER or 1 (855) 323-5337 and a longstanding unit dedicated solely to investigate and prosecute cases of elder fraud.
  • Check in regularly on an elder relative’s financial situation. Discuss or review financial transactions, bills and emails so you can detect any red flags. Routinely check the elder’s credit reporting service.
  • Consider hiring caretakers only through a licensed and bonded agency that is required to secure background checks.
  • Never send money to a stranger. Never share personal information or financial account information.
  • Make it clear you are not trying to control your elderly relative, but rather protect them. Discuss securing their finances with a Living Trust or a Financial Conservatorship.
  • If the older adult is contacted by a scammer, encourage them to change their phone number. Their number may be sold to other types of scammers, putting them at increased risk.

Our elders are just beginning to get vaccinated against COVID-19. Help Cherie and I protect our golden generation against a very scary and very human threat.

Jeff Rosen has served as Santa Clara County district attorney since 2010.

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