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Older Americans increasingly being targeted in array of financial scams

donnell collins/Special BeacNews Dwight KingÕs mother resident ConstitutiHouse Aurorsifts through some many letters she has received just since end May

donnell collins/Special to the Beacon News Dwight KingÕs mother, a resident of Constitution House in Aurora, sifts through some of the many letters she has received just since the end of May informing her she is a sweepstakes winner and asking for money to collect her prizes. In the past five years, the elderly woman has lost her lifeÕs savings, over $40,000, to scams like these.

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Updated: March 3, 2012 7:55PM

Boomers beware: Scams, frauds and other financial exploitation schemes targeting older Americans are a growing multibillion-dollar industry enriching the schemers, anguishing the victims and vexing law enforcement officials who find these crimes among the hardest to investigate and prosecute.

“The true con artists, who are in the business of making money off older folks through devious means, are very good at what they do,” said Sally Hurme, a consumer fraud specialist with AARP. “They cover their tracks, they use persuasive psychological means to spin their tales.”

Recently, three men told an elderly Evanston couple that they needed to check the water lines in the couple’s home — and then stole wedding rings and other jewelry.

While one man distracted the couple in the basement, two other men entered the home and stole several items, including a watch, a wedding band with two diamonds, and a rosewood crucifix, police said.

“In the Chicago area, there are crews of individuals who focus on the elderly,” Evanston police Cmdr. Jay Parrott said. “They prey on the elderly because they feel they’re an easy target.”

Within the last 30 days, the Naperville Police Department has received two separate reports of citizens being scammed out of money. In both instances, the elderly victims were led to believe a loved one was in some sort of legal trouble and needed money wired to them right away.

 A federally funded study conducted for the National Institute of Justice in 2009 concluded that 5 percent of Americans 60 and older had been the victim of recent financial exploitation by a family member, while 6.5 percent were the target of a nonfamily member.

Among the current rip-offs:

 The Grandparent Scam: Impostors, often calling from abroad, pose as a grandchild in need of cash to cope with some sort of emergency, perhaps an arrest or an accident. The grandparent is asked to send money and urged not to tell anyone else about the transfer.

Police in Bangor, Maine, said a man in his 70s was bilked out of $7,000 in January by a con artist pretending to be his grandson who called to say he needed money to get out of jail in Spain.

In another version, scammers pose as soldiers who’ve been serving in Afghanistan, and call grandparents claiming to need money as part of their homecoming.

 The Lottery Scam: Scammers inform their target that they have won a lottery or sweepstakes and need to make a payment to obtain the supposed prize.

An 80-year-old Massachusettes woman recently was bilked out of $400,000 over the course of a year in her efforts to claim bogus prize money.

Many recent lottery scam calls have come from Jamaica, to the point where its area code (876) is now cited as by anti-scam experts as a warning sign.

 The Toilet Paper Scam: Salespeople claiming their company was affiliated with federal agencies told their elderly victims that they needed special toilet paper to comply with new regulations and avoid ruining their septic tanks. Prosecutors said the company scammed about $1 million from victims from across the country, including some who purchased more than 70 years’ worth of toilet paper.

AP with Sun-Times staff

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