Seniors at Risk
Scammers prey on the elderly, and the isolation caused by the pandemic has made the problem worse here in Bergen County.
The two men at the door told Gabriel Musella they were from the utility company, and the Woodridge homeowner accepted them at their word. They were, after all, wearing uniforms, carrying clipboards and flashing apparent SUEZ IDs, and just the other day Musella had seen workers from the water company changing pipes out on Valley Boulevard. So when they told him they needed to see if his water was running clear, Musella, 92, invited them in. Truth be told, he was happy for the social contact, and after the men had ascertained that his water was fine, one of them engaged him in pleasant conversation—so pleasant, in fact, that his partner was able to slip away unnoticed and make his way to the master bedroom, where he confronted Musella’s wife.
“Sit down and you won’t get hurt,” he ordered her. Then he proceeded to ransack the room. Eventually, he and his partner made off with some $50,000 in cash, jewelry and family heirlooms.
It’s a story that Mark Musella, Gabriel’s son—who also happens to be the Bergen County prosecutor—has told to hundreds of Bergen seniors over the past three months as part of an initiative known as Senior Safety Scam Alert. Launched in September 2021, the initiative was created after Musella and his colleagues noticed a significant spike in scams aimed at seniors—including Musella’s own parents—during the pandemic. In 2020 alone, New Jersey seniors lost some $2.9 million through a variety of schemes. Seniors have long been a particular target of scammers—“they have money, and they tend to be trusting,” the prosecutor notes—but during the pandemic they’ve also been isolated, and scammers, Musella says, “prey on isolation.”
The initiative aims to combat the effects of isolation with a presentation detailing common scams. It’s available to any group of older residents—including clubs, residences and assisted-living centers—that requests it. The presentation also teaches seniors how to avoid scams and offers advice on what to do if they fall victim to one. That can happen online, on the phone or in person, in any number of ways intended to take advantage of human frailties that range from fear and loneliness to greed and financial duress.
“There are many scams, and they are often very clever,” warns Ria Sklar, a founder of the Bergen-based group Save Abused and Frail Elderly (SAAFE). Though that organization is no longer active (the seniors who founded and ran it having “retired” from the group), it helped set in motion the county’s coordinated response, by the prosecutor’s office and its office of Adult Protective Services (APS), to scams aimed at seniors. Sklar notes that the scams “change from week to week.” Nevertheless, they all fall into a few basic categories, and knowing about them can help scammers’ targets from becoming their victims:
The lottery scam: “This one is huge,” notes Maria Aberasturi, supervisor of Bergen County’s APS program. A caller or emailer contacts the target announcing that she’s won big in a foreign lottery and, in order to claim the prize, she needs to remit something in return—usually money or valuable information such as a Social Security or bank account number. Needless to say, the prize never arrives.
The romance scam: Scammers troll the internet, especially its many dating apps, to find men and women—often older—looking for love or companionship and then use their loneliness to manipulate them. After carefully building a relationship, they ask for a favor, usually in the form of money. Sometimes, Musella notes, romance scammers appeal not just to loneliness, but to greed as well. He cites the case of an older Bergen County woman who met a purported wealthy doctor on a dating site; the “doctor” claimed to have invented a medical device that could make them both rich if only she chipped in with some of the startup expenses. By the time she realized he was scamming her, she’d sent him more than $250,000—her entire life savings. “Through the dark web, we were able to trace him to South Africa,” Musella says, “but we weren’t able to get any of her money back”—a conclusion that’s all too common, especially in the case of long-distance cons.
The government scam: Usually this scam comes in the form of a phone call, notifying the target that he owes back taxes or that his Social Security number has been compromised, with the aim of either getting money from the victim or securing his bank account, Social Security number or some other piece of private information. These scammers depend on fear to muddle their targets’ thinking and often pressure them to take immediate action, before they can think clearly about the request or contact someone else. Some, notes Sklar, even claim to be police officers with outstanding warrants for their targets’ arrest. Bear in mind, says Musella, that “the IRS and the Social Security Administration will never call you concerning these issues.”
The charity scam: Because who wouldn’t want to help a worthy cause? The scammer will either claim to be from an actual charity (the local Police Benevolent Association, say) or a charity that sounds real but isn’t (the U.S. Cancer Society, for instance, instead of the American Cancer Society). Musella cautions that before donating, people should verify a charity’s existence and contact information at charitynavigator.org.
The grandparent scam: Eleanor Stevens will never forget the day her husband, Hank, was scammed. “I was out,” she says, “and he got a phone call from someone saying he was his grandson—he sounded horrible, voice shaky, crying—and then someone else got on the line and said he was holding our grandson and in order to release him, he’d need a payment of $1,500.” Her husband, who died last year, was a retired doctor whom Stevens describes as alert and intelligent—“but somehow,” she says, “he got hooked.” He took a cab to his bank branch in their hometown of Fort Lee in order to withdraw the money. Luckily, a bank officer noticed him and sensed his distress. Concerned, he asked if anything was the matter. When Hank told him why he needed money, the officer explained that it was a scam and sent him home, chastened but none the poorer. Offering some insight into why the scam—which takes advantage of a combination of love and fear—is so often successful, Stevens says, “It was his grandson—he would have done anything.”
Sometimes, a “grandparent” scammer poses as a lawyer and asks for money to bail a grandchild out of jail. But, says Musella, New Jersey abolished cash bail several years ago, so such a request is a giveaway that the call is fraudulent.
The sweetheart scam: In this case, the “sweetheart” in question isn’t necessarily a potential romantic partner, but often a person who offers some kind of assistance. That person, explains Aberasturi, might be a new acquaintance (or even an old one) or a neighbor who approaches the target with a friendly “Let me help you with your banking” or “Give me your ATM card and I’ll go shopping for you.” Some sweetheart scammers, she notes, scout hospital wards for potential targets, posing as home healthcare aides and offering to work for the patient when he’s released. Then they construct a relationship with their victim in order to gain access to his bank account or credit cards. Aberasturi recalls a scam in which an elderly man gave thousands of dollars to a so-called home healthcare aide claiming to need money for her own cancer surgery.
“My best advice to both seniors and their families,” says Aberasturi, “is to remain socially connected. Family members should stay connected with their elders and check on them often.” Even the savviest among us can fall prey to a scam when we have no one around us to offer a second opinion.
Educate older family members about common scams and, advises Sklar, “encourage them not to react” after someone approaches them with an unexpected offer or threat. Instead, ask them to call you or another trusted friend or relative first, or to call a company or government agency before agreeing to give money or information to a so-called representative of that organization.
If you or someone you know has already become a victim of a scam, you should notify law enforcement and/or APS. While it’s not always possible to retrieve money paid out to a scammer, it does happen, Musella says. Your notification will also help law enforcement understand what form the latest scams are taking so that they can stay ahead of the scammers and protect the people they serve from falling victim to fraud.
Weapons in the war on scams
Would a group you belong to be interested in a presentation educating seniors about avoiding scams? You can arrange such a talk by emailing the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 201.226.5511. Says County Prosecutor Mark Musella: “No group is too small or too big.” Another resource: The county’s Adult Protective Services office, which may be reached at 201.368.4300.
By Leslie Garisto Pfaff