Seniors bilked out of $219K in series of scams

Financial scams targeting senior citizens have long been a concern for the Petaluma Police Department, but after four separate scams bilked older Petaluma residents out of more than $219,000, officials are warning residents to be on alert.

"Some type of scam is reported to us about five times a month," said Petaluma Police Lt. Tim Lyons, who explained that roughly half of those scams involve elderly residents.

The most recent scam, reported to the Petaluma police on Jan. 28, is commonly called the "grandparent scam." A Petaluma grandmother was contacted by a man who claimed to be her grandson. He said he was in Mexico where he got into a traffic accident with a diplomat, and needed money to pay for the reapirs. She agreed to help and wired a total of $5,000 in three transaction to Mexico. Only after the money was gone, did she realize her grandson had not been in Mexico and it was a scam.

"It's becoming an epidemic," said said Ruth Robeson, a Petaluma attorney specializing in elder abuse cases and a volunteer with the Elder Protection Network, a nonprofit resource for seniors dealing with any type of abuse or neglect. "Seniors are targeted because they're seen as the greatest repository of wealth because of their retirement funds."

A markedly similar scam was reported earlier in the month, when a 69-year-old Crinella Drive woman told police that a man called her claiming to be her grandson, going as far as to provide personal details about her grandson, which proved very convincing. The man said he had been arrested in Mexico and needed $15,000 for bail. Concerned for her grandson, the woman wired the money to a Mexican address. She then called her grandson directly, learned he hadn't been in Mexico and reported the incident to police.

On Jan. 17, a 95-year-old Middlefield Drive resident reported that he fell victim to the "lottery scam," another con that is commonly reported by seniors, according to the National Council on Aging. The victim was notified that he was the winner of an out-of-state lottery, but to receive his winnings, he needed to pre-pay the taxes on the funds. In total, he paid around $124,000 in a variety of transactions.

The victim sent the money to addresses in both Michigan and Florida through a national parcel delivery service. Law enforcement officers in those states went to the addresses where the money was shipped, only to find more senior victims who claimed they were told to wire the money out of the country to get their lottery winnings. Police pinpointed the suspect's address in Canada, and are continuing to investigate the case.

In another incident reported in December, a 67-year-old Petaluma man befriended a woman on the Internet. She claimed to live in Ghana and asked the man to send her money so she could visit him in Petaluma. The man agreed, and wired her $4,000.

Several months later, she asked for another $5,000 for immigration documents, which he paid. She then contacted him again claiming she was stranded in customs in London, and needed $10,000 to pay the related fine. When he didn't immediately hand over the money, he was contacted by a man who demanded he pay the fine to get the woman out of custody. The Petaluma man agreed to wire the funds. In total, he sent more than $75,000 to the fictitious friend in Ghana.

"It's called a sweetheart scam," Robeson said, adding that con artists regularly prey on singe seniors' loneliness.

"Sometimes a senior is so isolated and lonely, a call from a predator might be a welcome thing," she said. "If you want to talk on the Internet and flirt, that's great. But if someone starts asking for money, you have to take a step back. Talk to somebody, a son, a daughter, a friend, a banker. Get a second opinion."

Robeson said other common scams deal with Social Security, Medicare or the Affordable Care Act, in which a person claims they need to verify a senior's private information such as a social security number to maintain their benefits.

"You need to say, 'I never give that information out over the phone,'" she advised. "Our takeaway is that you should always be wary of the incoming, when they're calling you."

Petaluma police said that residents can call the State Attorney General's Office, Better Business Bureau, Adult Protective Services or the local police department to report if they receive such calls or communications. They also urged families to educate the elderly people in their lives about the pervasiveness of such scams and how to avoid them. The police will hold a series of workshops in March and April at the Petaluma Senior Center to educate the public on issues related to financial fraud and other scams.

(Contact Emily Charrier at emily.charrier@arguscourier.com)