Have courier services been thrust to the front line of defending seniors against elderly scams?
In a new twist on an old story, some scammers, hoping to appear more credible, have taken to hiring courier services to deliver documents to the homes of their victims. A messenger shows up in a crisp uniform at a victim's doorstep and secures their signature -- giving the transaction a feeling of greater legitimacy. What the practice has also done is cause a dilemma for the couriers who at times become unwilling participants in elderly scams. If something looks suspicious, do they turn a blind eye or should they step up and question what's going on?
Nick Kirkou, owner of Ontime Express courier service in St. Louis, Missouri, is one who stepped up. Kirkou said that he gets calls all the time from companies wanting to fax him documents to be delivered to elderly people for their signature. A courier functions like a company messenger and is paid per task. Kirkou, who is quick to note that his company does not make it a standard practice to read documents intended for others, said that sometimes "what's going on is just plain obvious -- and you just have to do the right thing."
Kirkou, 47, drew both praise and criticism when he did "the right thing" and alerted police and other authorities about a 90-year-old woman he believed was about to get scammed out of $15,000 by an Arizona firm. The company was trying to collect $15,000 from her for what was essentially an e-blast mailing list of potential leads. At 90 and quite frail, she didn't look like the "telemarketing type," recalled Kirkou, and so he asked her a few questions about whether she knew what she was signing. It became clear to him that she didn't.
The woman told Kirkou that she thought she was getting a part-time job stuffing envelopes for the government. Kirkou called the police and the woman's credit card company and was credited with stopping the woman from being bilked. But somewhat curiously, despite the publicity about the story, calls from scammers continue to flood his business.
"The scammers like to use couriers because they think it makes them seem more legitimate -- more professional -- to the victim if they send someone over there with the papers. So they contact couriers like me to do their dirty work for them," he theorized. "These guys are very good. They sound very professional -- but you can tell what they are up to."
In the case of the woman he prevented from being scammed, the crooks were asking for her authorization to charge three increments of $5,000 each to her credit card. Kirkou said he thinks they were testing to see what the maximum limit on her card was.
"Seniors don't always know what's going on. They get a phone call offering them this 'job' and they think it's a good idea. They tell them they need a good faith deposit, or money for the list of leads," he said. "And these calls are being made constantly, looking for susceptible people."
Being a Good Samaritan didn't win him praise from all corners. He said he was surprised to hear from many people who thought he overstepped his role. "Many were upset that we had read the fax that we were supposed to deliver," he said. "As I said, we don't make it a practice of reading documents that aren't intended for our eyes. But when we do see something fishy, I intend to act on it."
Kirkou says he and his staff continue to proactively flag documents they find suspicious. "We have called people and asked, 'Are you sure you want to sign this?' and sometimes they tell us, 'Oh, it's fine; we aren't getting scammed.' That's about all we can do," he said. "Some of these documents are so confusing -- and who reads the small print?"
The police have told him that unless a crime is actually committed -- meaning the senior signs the paper and loses money -- there isn't anything they can do.
The Investor Protection Trust estimated that more than 7.3 million seniors -- about 20 percent of all Americans 65 and older -- have been victimized by a swindle. MetLife Inc. estimated the annual loss by victims of elderly scams at $2.9 billion.
What makes the elderly so susceptible to being scammed? There is actually some science to it, according to the University of Iowa. The brain's ventromedial prefrontal cortex controls belief and doubt and "in old age [it] tends to disproportionately lose structural integrity and associated functionality,” a report stated. Age-related damage to this part of the brain explains why seniors are more at risk for elderly scams such as the one Kirkou thwarted.
The Scam: The con artist sends a letter or email -- purportedly only to a few recipients but actually to several thousand -- making an offer that would result in a large payoff for the victim. The details vary, but generally the story is that a person, often the wife or son of a deposed African dictator, knows about some unclaimed fortune that they are willing to share with the scam victim in return for an advanced fee (e.g. bail money for the imprisoned millionaire). Once money starts coming in, the con artist will continue asking for more, claiming that problems have arisen. How To Protect Yourself: The FBI advises that if you "receive a letter from Nigeria asking you to send personal or banking information, send the letter to the U.S. Secret Service, your local FBI office or U.S. Postal Inspection Service." You can also register a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission's Complaint Assistant here.
The Scam: Criminals set up craigslist accounts advertising the sale of desirable items (e.g. cars, computers, iPhones) at too good to be true prices. A meeting is set up with the victim in a remote location where they're robbed upon arrival. How To Protect Yourself: Detective Frank Avila of the West Valley LAPD advises "good places to meet are local police stations or malls. Criminals are less likely to conduct crimes or illegal activity in public areas where lots of people are present."
The Scam: The victim is contacted and informed that they've won some sort of free gift, vacation or prize but that they have to pay "postage and handling" or some sort of tax before they receive their reward. How To Protect Yourself: If you've legitimately won something, you should never have to pay any sum to receive it. It's almost impossible to get your money back if you've been cheated over the phone, so before you buy anything by telephone, remember not to buy from unfamiliar companies, always ask for and wait until you receive written material about an offer and always check out unfamiliar companies with your local consumer protection agency. From the FBI: "Legitimate businesses understand that you want more information about their company and are happy to comply."
The Scam: The con artist, acting on behalf of a fake company, promises a sage investment with ridiculous returns for the victim. The fake company takes the money, but no investment is made. Instead the money goes into their pockets -- and disappears just as quickly as the company soon will. The old adage holds true: If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. How To Protect Yourself: According to the FBI: "Do not invest in anything unless you understand the deal. Con artists rely on complex transactions and fault logic to 'explain' fraudulent investment schemes." Always be wary of any investment that offers the promise of extremely high yields.
The Scam: Homeowners are distracted by an individual while other sneak into their homes, stealing valuables, cash and jewelry. The ruse burglary can take place under the guise of a gas leak that needs to be stopped, a tree next door that needs trimming but must be reached fromt he angle of a neighbor's lawn, or indeed anything that will result in the preoccupation of a resident while they are unknowingly robbed by other accomplices. Ruse burglaries sometimes lead to home invasion situations that can pose the risk of assault or other violent crimes taking place. How To Protect Yourself: If someone is asking you to step outside of your home for any reason, don't. Instead, offer to call 911 for them. If someone claims they need to do urgent work on behalf of a utility company, call the utility company and verify the work.