When Anthony Servitto started his job as head of the senior crimes unit for Macomb County Prosecutor’s Office. he figured most of the victims would be seniors with disabilities that made them vulnerable, or with no family for support.
It has been a whole lot more.
“With the scams that are being pulled off today, it can be anyone,” said the assistant prosecuting attorney:
âą A trusting 95-year-old woman in Clawson gave a man posing as a city worker $150 because he told her that she needed to replace her water lines.
âą A man and a woman in Troy scammed a group of seniors out of more than $10,000 in gift cards purchased under false pretenses (usually to help a friend in need) at a local Target. The Target cards were used to buy other gift cards used for the purchase of high-end merchandise online that was sold to customers overseas.
âą After a 76-year-old widow in Macomb County allowed her son and his wife to move into her home after they were evicted from theirs, they not only ate all of her food but got into fights that left the mother’s home and personal items in shambles. She had to buy herself a refrigerator and microwave, and eventually got a lock for her bedroom, where she remained whenever they were home.
âą In another case involving a loving parent, an 83-year-old farmer in St. Clair County discovered that the calls he was getting from a collection agency were due to his two daughters. They used his Social Security number to purchase credit cards, which they maxed out.
These are just some of the cases involving senior citizens, who have no disability other than being kind-hearted and trusting individuals.
The Oakland County Prosecutorâs Office prosecutes 10-12 cases a year of fraud against seniors that rise to the level of felonies.
âOftentimes itâs a type of embezzlement, improper use of financial transaction device, (use of credit card), and some internet scams that are larceny by conversion,â said Chief Assistant Prosecutor Paul Walton.
Larger cases involving the internet and larger dollar amounts are referred to the U.S. Attorneyâs Office.
Walton said the number of frauds against seniors is difficult to count because state law defines elder abuse, but not senior fraud.
However, the office makes 30 presentations a year to seniors groups about how to protect themselves, and has staff dedicated to scams against seniors.
The latest scam, he said, involves open enrollment for health insurance that concluded Dec. 15, and unscrupulous phishing for personal information.
Even if you donât shop on the internet or donât make purchases, donât think youâre 100 percent protected,â Walton said. âYou have to do a credit check three times a year.â
Michigan has the dubious distinction of ranking high for both fraud complaints and identity theft complaints made to the Federal Trade Commission.
Michigan ranks first in the country with 151 identity theft complaints per 100,000 people, according to the FTCâs Consumer Sentinel Network Data Book. There were a total 15,027 complaints to the FTC in its 2017 book, the latest year available.
The state ranks fifth nationally in the number of fraud complaints with 750 per 100,000 and a total of 74,689.
There isnât a state level look at victims of identity theft or fraud by age. But nationally, 40 percent of the 20-29 age group reported instances of fraud while just 18 percent of seniors did so. But the median dollar loss was $400 for the younger age group, and $1,092 for seniors 80 and older.
âIâve seen an increase in clients,â said Tracie Dominique-Boyd, an attorney with Lakeshore Legal Aid in Southfield, which works with the Area Agency on Aging 1-B to provide senior citizens with help with legal matters, including those pertaining to scams. âBut I think itâs because weâre finally talking about it.â
Itâs embarrassing being taken for a ride. However, the more people discuss whatâs going on, whether itâs through workshops or seminars, seniors become more comfortable talking about what happened to them and can connect with someone who can help.
Dominique-Boyd found out about the widow in Macomb County being hoodwinked by her son during a conversation they had concerning the womanâs estate.
âShe wanted help with her will and she just opened up,â Dominique-Boyd said.
It was then that Dominique-Boyd was able to convince the woman that what her son was doing to her was not normal and that there were things that she could do.
âItâs really disgusting that an adult child would even think that itâs appropriate to live off his elderly mother for free,â Dominique-Boyd said.
In the end, Dominique-Boyd was able to get a personal protection order for the mom, which the Macomb County Sheriffâs Department assisted in serving the couple. They were then escorted from the motherâs home, without incident.
âSheâs doing really well. Sheâs involved in senior activities, playing Euchre and learning how to crochet,â Dominique-Boyd said.
Senior citizens can go to the police if they’ve been scammed.
“There’s a (senior crimes) detective assigned to each police department but it’s really a backtrack situation once the crime has already happened.”
âSo, prevention is key,” added Servitto, holding up a packet of information created to make senior citizens more aware of the scams and what they can do to prevent them.
In the packet are questions for seniors to test their knowledge on a variety of topics:
Investing in credit card protection is a smart move, true or false?
False. Telemarketers may trick you into thinking you need credit card protection for a $250-$500 annual fee (that they’ll be happy to charge to your credit card). But you are protected by the Fair Credit Billing Act, which says as long as you report and verify fraudulent charges within 60 days of the date of your credit card statement, the most for which you will be held responsible is $50.
There is no law that requires charities to spend a certain percentage of their income on programs and services. True or false?
True, it is the donor’s responsibility to determine how his or her donation is used. Ask charities for a copy of their annual report or contact the Better Business Bureau’s Wise Giving Alliance at give.org.
The only proven way to protect yourself from telemarketing fraud is to hang up. True or false?
“Absolutely, hang up,” Servitto said. If the caller is not a friend, relative or verifiable business connection, hang up. “Do not talk, or lecture because they are phishing for information and the more you talk, the more they get.”
There is also help for senior citizens after the fact.
“I’m not an attorney but I can offer older adults financial support in recovering their debt,” said Latoya Hall, research assistant and program coordinator for Success After Financial Exploitation (SAFE), which was created by Dr. Peter Lichtenberg, PhD, director of the Institute of Gerontology at Wayne State University, and one of the country’s foremost researchers in safeguarding seniors from financial exploitation.
“I can help them access credit reports to find out what accounts have been affected or how to file disputes,” Hall said.
“We’re also rolling out a caregiver portion that teaches them what to look for in order to make sure (seniors) are not being exploited,” added Hall, who still finds it hard to believe that someone would have the audacity to scam a senior out of their life savings. “Ten thousand dollars is a lot of money for anyone to lose but you or I, we can always go back to work to make it up. For someone to take that kind of money from someone, like a senior who cannot make it up, that makes me angry.”
The following is a list of resources compiled by the senior crimes unit of the Macomb County Prosecutorâs Office, which also has a toll-free fraud hotline, 866-498-8503:
Adult Protective Services â If you suspect abuse, neglect or exploitation of a vulnerable adult, you can make an anonymous report by calling 855-444-3911. Senior citizens can also make the call on behalf of themselves, anonymously.
National Do Not Call Registry â To reduce the risk of telemarketing schemes, anyone can sign up for Do Not Call. Exceptions include charities, politicians and companies with whom you have a relationship. Call 1-888-382-1222 or visit donotcall.gov.
Credit Card Offer âOpt Outâ Line â Stop credit card offers and unwanted credit cards from credit reporting agenciesâ marketing lists. The call is free and there is no charge for the service. Call 1-888-567-8688 or visit www.optoutprescreen.com/.
Investment Advice â To inquire about the legitimacy of any investment offer that you donât understand or seems too good to be true, call your state securities administrator before you invest any money at 1-877-999-6442.
Consumer Protection Office of the Attorney General â Call 1-877-765-8388 or visit michigan.gov/ag.
Credit Reporting Agencies â To receive a free copy of your credit report each year to help ensure that there is no inaccurate information or unusual activity, such as someone using your social security number, visit www.annualcreditreport.com or call 1-877-322-8228. You can also download a copy of the annual credit request form at www.annualcreditreport.com and mail it to: Annual Credit Report Request Service, P.O. Box 105281, Atlanta, GA 30348-5281.
Reporting Theft Or Unauthorized Use Of Credit Card Or Social Security Number â Call Equifax at 1-800-525-6285 or visit equifax.com; Experian at 1-888-397-3742 or visit experian.com; and Trans Union, at 1-800-680-7289 or visit transunion.com.