They can get very extravagant and look very professional. There are some with gold and silver inlaid in them, made up to be certificates. Others have what appears to be handwriting on it – like a family member has already looked over the flyer and made notes on how beneficial it is. They come in the mail and they are trying to get money out of people – especially the elderly.
Pam Durkee with the U.S. Postal Inspection Service says the people who get them were somehow put on a “sucker list” or a “mooch list.”
“We see a lot of these. This is really common,” Durkee said, “For all kinds of things – ranging from vitamins to whitening your teeth, phony lottery notifications – all kinds of things.”
Family members should be on the lookout for those flyers that offer life-elongating cures that are sold as “medical treatments” with an actual physician recommending them. To stop seniors from getting taken in by these scams, both Durkee and Leigh Hinze with Denver Human Services’ Adult Protection Team say family members should talk with the seniors in their lives to prevent them from falling pretty to these sorts of schemes.
“I think that these are conversations that people should have with their parents,” Hinze said. “Say, ‘Have you had any queries asking for money for a magic elixir that’s going to cure all your ails?’ A lot of people will understand that there’s been snake oil salesmen for centuries.”
“Talk to the seniors in your family – make it a point to say, ‘Hey, are you getting a lot of mail?’” Durkee said.
She says victims of these senior scams often get trapped in a cycle of sending money to fraud operators.
“At times, it’s hard to convince the ones who get hooked into the schemes. It’s almost like an addiction. I’ve seen seniors who over one or two years eat up their retirement, sending money to lotteries thinking they’re going to be paid a big check one day and they never get it,” Durkee said. “Some seniors end up losing their homes.”
Barbara Martin-Worley, the Director of Consumer Fraud Protection for the Denver District Attorney’s Office, says they recommend that people always try to be wise consumers.
“Generally what we’re just telling people to do is: just don’t play along,” Martin-Worley said. “It’s not even just older people – anyone can fall for these things.”
“When you’re asked to wire money from someone you do not know, if it’s a business transaction, if the solicitation came out of nowhere, red flags should be flying,” Durkee said.
The most common flyers that endanger elder safety through the mail are lottery scams. They are flyers and certificates notifying seniors and other people that they won the lottery. However, to get the winnings they have to pay a legal or an administrative fee. Sometimes their notification will come with an authentic looking check.
“Ten days later, the elderly person finds out the check is counterfeit and then the bank comes after them,” Durkee said. “The counterfeit checks are so convincing – many have real bank routing numbers and real account numbers on them. But they’re counterfeit.”
There are a series of questions seniors and their families can ask to protect against these types of elder abuse scams.
“Ask yourself: ‘Why would they be sending this item to me?’” she said. “They’ve gotten on a list because some unscrupulous con artist has decided they’re going to pay.”
Another questions she says to ask: “Did I even enter a lottery?” and look at the postmark – “Is it from the United States or is it coming out of Canada, Nigeria or Spain?”
“If you get something through the mail and it sounds like free money – if it sounds too good to be true, do not do it. In reality, in life we rarely get something for nothing,” Durkee said.
Martin-Worley says the DA’s office has a list of the type of things people should look out for when it comes to mail solicitations: sweepstakes, charities and of course, any kind of lottery.
“We always assume it’s a scam until we can prove otherwise,” Martin-Worley said. “Anything that doesn’t look professional should raise a flag. Anything that has the key words: offer guaranteed, miracle product, money-back guarantee, free trial offer – as a general rule it’s probably best to stay away from those.”
Martin-Worley also says you should be suspicious of any sort of organization that asks for your personal information through the mail or over the phone, especially when it comes to your Social Security number or bank information.
“They’re just trying to lure an older person in,” she said.
Hinze says they get involved after it’s already too late.
“We usually get the calls after – if there’s a concern that somebody has been exploited,” Hinze said.
Hinze says victims sometimes have a hard time coming forward.
“People are often embarrassed to make that first call because they’re shy about talking about how they or a family member may have been victimized,” she said.
Durkee says she’s gone to homes and encountered family members that have no idea that their loved ones have stockpiled piles of solicitations that offer money or other seemingly essential items.
“What we see especially is that with people who are single or who are widowed is that people will call them and befriend them. They will often talk about God and say, ‘This is a blessing,’ and ‘It’s meant to be,’” Durkee said. “They Prey on the seniors’ vulnerabilities.”
People will then pose as priests, minsters and attorneys, calling them or sending them a letter through the mail referring to the person who’s been on the phone with the target. The mailings will claim to help, saying they are just trying to recoup money that they’ve already lost.
“If given the opportunity, absolutely I would talk with your seniors in your life, whether it’s your parents or others, and inquire about the mailings they are receiving at home,” Durkee said. “You can also query the caller ID list and see where the incoming calls are coming from and see if there’s company names or information that would be concerning to the family.”
For more tips and to report any mail fraud, you can visit the Postal Inspection Service online at https://www.uspis.gov/. If you are already a victim, Denver Human Services encourages you to contact your local human services department – they are there to help you.
The Better Business Bureau (www.bbb.org) can also be a great resource. Before starting contact with a company through the mail, Martin-Worley recommends you check on their BBB rating. The BBB also rates charities.
“You will never know if they are legitimate unless you do your own research on that company,” she said. “Consumer: beware of what you’re signing up for.”
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