‘Many times they will target our senior citizens’: Prevention, education key in keeping seniors from financial scams, schemes

When a 60-year-old St. Augustine woman recently received a call from someone claiming to be with the Internal Revenue Service, who told her she owed thousands back taxes and faced incarceration if she didn’t pay, the woman quickly did as she was told.


The problem, according to an incident report from the St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office, was that the person wasn’t from the IRS, and the woman soon found herself out $4,500 after she purchased a series of $100 iTunes gift cards and read the card information to the caller over the phone in an effort to clear the debt.

Stories like that happen often, according to sheriff’s office spokesman Cmdr. Chuck Mulligan.

Just how often is difficult to track because the scams vary, as do the ways the responding deputies file the reports, he told The Record Thursday. And, he speculated earlier, some incidents probably go unreported all together because people, too embarrassed after realizing what they have done, never call in.

Mulligan said the sheriff’s office does get calls, though, and they usually come in waves.

“Those numbers are probably enough to alarm you,” he said.

Mulligan said what typically happens is that a group will target a certain area with a given scam and make a rash of phone calls. The sheriff’s office may then get a call that someone has fallen victim to it, but they will also get a series of other calls just reporting the scam by people who saw through it.

“Many times they will target our senior citizens,” he said.

Mulligan said the sheriff’s office then typically responds by pushing out information, either through a news release or social media, warning residents what the scam is and telling people to be aware.

“Then everything may go silent for awhile,” he said.

That usually happens after people have been warned or, whoever is calling runs out of numbers.

“When their well dries up, when people aren’t picking up their phone anymore, they go to a different jurisdiction,” Mulligan said.

That is just one reason, among many, that it is so difficult to catch the people running the scams and put a stop to them, he said. Often the people are concealing the numbers they are calling from, or they are even calling from outside the country which makes extradition difficult, if not impossible. The ones that are operating inside the country aren’t necessarily any easier to catch, he said.

Mulligan used a hypothetical example of a person who wired money to a Western Union location in Texas. That location would most likely have security cameras, but often times, the actual perpetrator will pay someone — perhaps a homeless person — a nominal fee to go in and collect the payment.

“These individuals are very aware of what’s being videoed and how to avoid being captured,” he said.

The scams change often, but Mulligan said posing as the IRS is a popular tactic, as are claims that a grandchild, or loved one, is in custody in a far away jurisdiction, sometimes out of the country, and money needs to be wired immediately for bail or other legal fees.

Oftentimes the scammer will ask for money to be wired by Western Union or paid in iTunes gift cards or Green Dot prepaid cards.

“Those are the three big ones right now,” Mulligan said, adding that any other prepaid card that is requested should also raise suspicions.

There are plenty of other hints in such calls that should also raise suspicions, he said. Not the least of which is that the IRS doesn’t accept payment in the form of gift cards over the phone and it is very unlikely that they will call in the first place.

“The IRS does not place phone calls. They do everything through the mail,” Mulligan said.

Passing along tips like that to seniors is one of the things that keeps Legal Aid of St. Johns County managing attorney Megan Wall busy.

Wall hosts lectures throughout the year at two Council on Aging locations as well as at the Southeast Branch of the St. Johns County Public Library

The lectures are geared toward helping seniors, and the struggling, navigate the sometimes intimidating legal world, and some are meant to help keep people from falling prey to a variety of schemes and programs that can end up costing them a lot of money.

Sitting in her office Wednesday, Wall said there’s an endless variety of programs, and even “scams,” of which seniors should be wary.

“Some are legal and some are not,” she said.

As for the over-the-phone scams, Wall said, there is a list of red flags that should warn seniors to steer clear.

She rattled them off: “Too good be to true. Time is of the essence. One time only. No time to have it looked at by a lawyer.” Others include the need to wire money and the need to act immediately because a number of other people are in line to claim whatever is promised.

All of that, she said, is designed to trick someone into making a decision too quickly. But important, expensive decisions, she added, not only shouldn’t be made in haste, the ones that truly are important rarely ever need to be made quickly at all. She urged people to slow down, take their time and think before entering into an agreement to transfer a large amount of money to anyone.

Once someone has fallen victim to a phone scam, she said, there is very little she can do, adding that, at that point, a crime has been committed and it should be in the hands of law enforcement.

What Wall tries to focus on, though, is keeping seniors from falling for the scams in the first place as well as keeping them from getting entangled in other agreements that can be not only expensive, but also difficult to get out of.

That’s what the lectures are for.

She also makes herself available most Friday mornings at the Council on Aging to answer questions and encourages others to contact her office if needed.

“There’s no consumer protections like there used to be,” she said.

She rattled off another list that included title loans, payday loans, rent-to-own schemes, pawn shops and reverse mortgages — all things, she said, that can appear attractive to a senior, or a person struggling financially, but can end up costing them a lot of money.

Many of the items on the list, she said, should be avoided all together, while others require the help of a lawyer to either review the terms of the agreement before entering into it or extricating oneself from it once entwined.

That kind of work, including helping people deal with illegal collection practices and “usurious interest rates,” makes up a lot of what Wall’s office works on.

“From the legal, to the unscrupulous, to the completely illegal, I’d say that’s half of what we deal with,” she said.

She has a team of about six to 10 private, volunteer attorneys who meet every other week to discuss cases that have come into her office and decide which ones they can take up.

That work, though, takes time, which is why it’s best to educate people, through the lectures, ahead of time.

“All I can do is speak until I’m hoarse to warn people,” she said.

Wall’s lecture series is open to the public. For information, call the Council on Aging at 209-3700. To contact Legal Aid, call 827-9921.

For information

n Call Council on Aging at 209-3700.

n Call Legal Aid at 827-9921.