Who’s Stealing From Your Dad Right Now?

A fraud investigator shares tales from the dark side of human nature, as criminals trick people out of their life savings.
Source: DanielVilleneuve/Getty Images/iStockphoto

“You know in your heart of hearts that when the account balance hits zero, the girlfriend is gone,” says Wendy Johnson.

Johnson has been investigating suspicions of financial abuse of the elderly for six of her nine years on U.S. Bancorp Investment's complaints-and-investigations team. Most of the referrals she gets come from the bank’s financial advisers who suspect exploitation by someone a client knows and trusts—a son, daughter, attorney, grandchild, caretaker.

Wendy Johnson

Wendy Johnson

Source: U.S. Bank

Increasingly, she’s seeing cases of outright fraud. One common scenario, she says, is widows or widowers falling prey to romantic scams. Loneliness leaves many seniors vulnerable, and “human sexuality is very much a factor,” says Johnson, 50, who has a law degree. One client is in his early 70s and continues to give money to a 23-year-old girlfriend. He knows he is depleting his emergency funds, she says, but “I can’t make him stop. From my vantage point, it’s exploitation. From his viewpoint, it’s love.”

Scammers target the elderly because they represent an attractive pool of wealth and may not know a lot about how the internet can be used to rip them off. Some are suffering from cognitive decline. The people Johnson typically used to see being scammed were 80-year-old women living alone without close family. Now, “the internet really allows everybody to be victimized,” she says. “More and more with online, I’m getting men as well.”

Some 17 percent of seniors say they’ve been the victim of financial exploitation, according to studies cited in a report last year by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. The annual tally for money lost in elder financial abuse was $2.9 billion, a 2011 MetLife study estimated, based on public data. Experts suspect that the vast majority of abuse is not reported and that the true tally is far higher.

The number of elder abuse cases referred to U.S. Bank’s complaints-and-investigations team more than doubled from 2014 to 2015, after the bank launched an education program for employees. It rose an additional 20 percent last year. In 2015 the tally of assets considered “at risk” among suspected victims of fraud at the bank was more than $75.4 million. Last year it was $34.6 million.

For longtime users of social media, all of this is a reminder to watch what we, and our parents, reveal, so we don’t wind up in Johnson’s next interview. Meanwhile, here’s this one, edited for length and clarity.

How do you come across the dating scams?

With one client in his early 70s, it came to my attention when he was trying to withdraw money for his 23-year-old girlfriend so she could have a funeral for her mother. He had already given her almost $300,000 over the course of eight months. She was allegedly all alone, with no family, and said her mother had just died of cancer.

We did a quick search on Facebook and Google and discovered that her mother had posted pictures of her new dogs two hours earlier, and there were lots of pictures of this client’s girlfriend and all of her siblings. Everything she had said was a lie.

When we’re working with people whose mental capacity is not an issue, there’s often not a lot the state or the police will do, unless the client is willing to do something on their own behalf. With these cases, we have “come to Jesus” conversations. The adviser, who was reasonably close with this client, laid it all out—this is what we found, we’re concerned you’re blowing through your money. He told the client that his money was not going to sustain him and that they needed to look at his finances and make some changes based on what he had left. 

What did the client do? 

He wired the girlfriend more money, about $8,000 over the next week. It appears that he is still providing money to a third party.

What part does loneliness play in a scammer’s success? 

It is a huge driving factor, and we see it more and more—more than anything else—especially in men. They are of an age and a demographic when they are used to being taken care of a bit, and often the caregiver essentially takes the place of the spouse, so men might be more endearing toward them financially.

Even with family exploitation, when there is an adult child living with the parent, even though that child is bleeding them dry emotionally and financially, the parent doesn’t want to give up that relationship. If the child leaves, they are alone. One thing many organizations, AARP and others, suggest is that older people expand their support base—go to church, join a book club, a bridge club, do volunteer work. Then you’re not sitting around shopping or chatting with people online.

What gets elderly users of social media in trouble?

This is an age group that tends to be oversharers on Facebook, Google, and other sites that are very easily accessed. Scammers can piece together where they live, where their grandkids live, whether they are traveling, and much more. With 15 minutes and $10, a scammer can go into Intellius.com and get date of birth, driver’s license numbers … it’s all available online. If they call in to a financial firm’s online service center, it’s very easy for them to impersonate people.

Educating a parent is important, without sounding condescending. It can be helpful to say, “Hey, look at this, people are still falling for this IRS scam,” and make sure they know that the IRS doesn’t call people and doesn’t proactively reach out, that Microsoft will never call you on the phone and say there’s something wrong with your computer. And say, “I’ll let you know if there’s something wrong with your computer, and I’ll take it in.” A lot of times it’s easier if the information comes from one of their peers.

What kind of abuse do you see when family is involved?

An older person might think, I’ll just give my son his inheritance early, not realizing that they, the parent, might have a financial need at some point, might need nursing home care or rehab. But they have family members pressuring them for money. 

Where we have the most success [in resolving issues] is with known-person elder abuse and financial exploitation, because it’s not always malicious. You have caregivers that might not be emotionally equipped or financially equipped to be caregivers, so $10 or $15 taken here or there turns into $100. Or we have people who have a power of attorney or trustees, and they don’t necessarily understand the legal ramifications of that role. They may not be maliciously doing things wrong. Maybe they are reimbursing themselves after paying out of pocket. It might look bad on paper. We can have them work with counselors, social workers, get them in touch with community resources.

What are you seeing in cases of outright fraud? 

We’ll see some scammers start small. You’ll see a charge for $1.73 on someone’s account as a test, and then every month you’ll see a $19.99 charge, and it will go on for years. After doing this to 1,000 people at $19.99 a month for five years, that’s a pretty good income.

But the hardest thing we have now are scams being perpetrated on seniors in bulk. A scammer will take $15,000 or $150,000 and can move it from bank to bank and out of the country very quickly. Once it leaves the country, it’s almost impossible to get those funds back.

In one instance, we had a client wire out funds [to a scammer], and when the daughter brought it to our attention, a week or so had already passed. That’s a lifetime in the movement of funds through banks. The money went to Canada, then China. But the scammer kept tapping that Canadian account, and whoever was perpetrating the fraud put more funds in the account, and we were able to retrieve them. Typically, they don’t use the same accounts over and over. We hit on the right day and got the funds out. That was luck.

We’ve also had a couple of construction-related cases. One involved the son of a neighbor of a client. She was lonely, and I’m sure he’d come over and have cookies and coffee. He convinces her to do sewer work. The house is worth $130,000, and over the course of the years, $300,000 of work was done on the house. 

In that case, there were a lot of red flags. One day she wrote him $11,000 in checks, but they were two $5,500 checks, so they fall under the bank cash-reporting requirements for $10,000 or more. He goes to two banks, 30 miles apart from each other, and cashes them. He never runs a check through his own bank account.

We went to the Department of Labor, and they said that if the client was writing a check out to the neighbor’s son, that creates a contract with him to do the work. Under state law, he would have to be bonded and insured, and he wasn’t. So we reported it, and the police got involved, and I don’t know that there was a lot they could do, because she wasn’t willing to prosecute. We provided the information to the Department of Labor and Industry, and they prosecuted the case against the contractor, the son, for violation of state law. The Department of Health and Human Services intervened in the client situation, in an attempt to engage the family to assist. Due to privacy laws, the bank wasn’t informed of the outcome related to the client.

What’s the most egregious case you’ve ever seen? 

We had one elderly client request a wire of $120,000. Call him Robert. That amount was unusually large for him, so his adviser was concerned and kept pressing Robert to tell him the reason for the withdrawal. The client didn’t want to tell him.

When we have a client who is reluctant and the adviser has a good relationship with them, we ask the adviser to continue pressing them. Eventually, Robert said he was helping one of his daughters—call her Susan—with short-term financial issues and that he would be paid back.

We did a little research on our own, and it didn’t appear that Susan had financial issues. He had another daughter—call her Mary—who was a co-owner on a bank account with him, but it wasn’t our bank. 

The adviser just didn’t think his client was acting normally. Usually, I try not to insert myself as someone from compliance, but in this case the adviser asked me to call the client. Robert reiterated the story about helping Susan. I asked point-blank if he was sending this money to someone he didn’t know. He said no. I said, you’re not sending it out of the country? He said no.

He wired the money and was using different banks to try and wire more money. In all the shuffling of money, he wound up bouncing a check written to another bank from his account with us. Mary, whose name was on that other bank account, called and said, “What’s up with Dad’s account?” The adviser said privacy rules meant he couldn’t tell her, but that he’d really encourage her to bring her father into the office and they could all talk about it.

It turns out the father had gotten a call in the middle of the night from a “Mr. Clark,” who said he was an attorney in Dallas, which is where Robert’s grandson lived. The grandson was not close with the family. The attorney said the grandson had been in a car accident and was charged with driving under the influence and needed bail money. Robert sent the money. The scammer called again and said, “I need more money to represent him.” Robert wired more money and never called the boy’s parents to find out if he was really in jail.

Then the scammer called back and said he’d entered Robert into a drawing for a prize, and he had won, but he’d have to pay tax on it. Robert sent money for the tax. The scammer called again and said, “We have an even bigger drawing if you want to be entered into that.” He sent money for that, too.

As it all came out, his daughter Mary was sitting there flabbergasted. He was asked to tell his daughter if the man called again. Often you have to terminate your cell phone, or scammers will just keep calling.

It took us about a week to get back as much of the money as we could. I called his adviser and said, “We got $79,000 back, yay!” And he said, “You are not going to believe this. He just tried to wire $50,000 more.” But the bank had restricted his account, so he couldn’t.

Even though we had told him he was the victim of a scam, the police were involved, his daughter Mary was now on his account, he still did it. What are they saying to him that is so persuasive he won’t listen to anyone?

How often can you help actually catch scammers? 

It’s very difficult to catch them on a small scale. Many are part of larger organized crime organizations and may be based in foreign countries. 

How does your job affect you, dealing with all these things? 

I like my job because it’s interesting, but it’s hard. Oftentimes there is not a lot we can do. If your clients don’t have issues with mental capacity and there is no illegal activity going on, or if adult protective services can’t do anything, our hands are tied.

My parents have passed away, but I do look at some things in hindsight, with my father. People that tend to fall for scams are statistically more likely to make decisions on their own, less likely to take advice from others, more likely to take risks and to take those risks to get bigger returns. They also overestimate their abilities, and that all describes my father.

My father got involved with an attorney that created trusts, and charged a lot of money for creating them, so my dad had a trust that was overcomplicated for the money he had. It turned out to be a problematic trust, and he wound up giving more to his church than he had anticipated, because of how the trust was written. Ultimately, that attorney went to jail for the stuff he did to a lot of people.

Lots of people think these are unsophisticated people that get scammed. That’s not the case. I have doctors who have made horrible decisions with their money because they are highly intelligent and overestimate their abilities, and are trusting of people who present themselves as sophisticated. Scammers have a script. They are very good at what they do. 

We see clients who have capacity, and the courts aren’t going to take their rights away from them, but they are trusting the wrong people. It’s hard for us in St. Paul [Minn.] to say, “You can’t trust that attorney you see every other day, because that attorney is violating ethics and you shouldn’t have bought him a car.”

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.
    LEARN MORE