A Global Network of Scammers is Targeting Older People—Here’s How to Avoid Becoming a Victim
Internet crimes are on the rise, and the organized crime gangs perpetrating these scams are often far beyond the reach of local law enforcement.
- Illustration: John Ritter
The truth about romance scams
On a frosty January afternoon, Lis Daugaard’s tummy fluttered as she waited in arrivals at Copenhagen airport. Dressed in her best, the 65-year-old searched among the disembarking passengers for Robert Aleksander’s face. They’d met on a dating site and, after two months exchanging emails and phone calls, this would be their first real-life encounter.
After the crowd thinned to nothing, Lis still stood there waiting. Where was the man from the photographs—grey-haired, handsome, with a shy smile? On her way home, the tears began to flow. “I had to call my daughter and say: ‘I think I’ve made a big mistake,’ ” she says.
Lis’s romance began on popular Danish site, dating.dk, shortly after she retired back in 2013. Her husband had died 10 years earlier and until now she had been too busy raising four kids and pursuing an international career with the Chamber of Industry and Commerce in Leipzig (living on the continent for some years) to look for love. When she posted her profile, Robert Aleksander—who claimed to be a EU diplomat—pinged into her inbox almost immediately.
As the relationship blossomed, his emails became increasingly romantic. So when he said he needed a loan for travel, Lis didn’t hesitate. She wired him her savings of 94,000 krone (about $18,600 CAD), including a visit to her. Now, when he failed to arrive, Lis was stunned. “How could a woman of my background, working all over Europe, get taken in like this?” she asks.
Police are worried about cases like Lis’s because many are carried out by international organized crime gangs, operating behind the shield of a computer in Nigeria, Malaysia or Israel, far beyond the reach of local law enforcement. The Danish force issued a stark public warning, as have forces in Germany, France, Canada and the US. “The person you are communicating with is not necessarily the person they say they are,” Danish police told hopeful daters.
Different forms of fraud
Crime statistics show complaints of romance scams rising as much as 20 per cent in a year in some countries such as in the U.S. where the FBI reports that that most victims are women over 40 who are divorced, widowed and/or disabled. The FBI reports that in the US in 2016, it received close to 15,000 complaints of romance scams—nearly 2,500 more than the previous year, with victims losing more than $230 million. The UK’s police unit Action Fraud said more than 3,500 people lost £41 million (equivalent to $60 million CAD) to romance scams in Britain in 2017 alone. Such figures are likely the tip of the iceberg, since romance scams not only empty bank accounts—they also bring a lasting sense of shame.
But romance scams aren’t the only way that networks of fraudsters worldwide increasingly target older people, according to Europol, the EU’s law enforcement agency. Groups of criminals use “social engineering” fraud to tease out a potential victims’ confidential information and cash. It is carried out online, through email (“phishing”) or social networks, as well as by phone (“vishing”). In Sweden, the UK and Belgium, police recently warned of a hoax where a scammer calls a victim pretending to be a detective. The “cop” tells them that scammer have accessed their bank account. They promise to help if the victim entrusts them with their bank details.
“It’s well organized,” says Peter Depuydt, project manager for fraud at Europol. “They have people to launder the money, people to open bank accounts, and call centres to swindle people.” They can even steal the phone numbers of financial institutions (known as “spoofing”).
It is hard to know the scale of the problem since many are too embarrassed to report such scams, says Depuydt. But, he adds: “We believe the number’s rising, because elders are such easy targets.” British police unit Action Fraud reported that more than 92,000 scam complaints between October 2016 and September 2017 came from people age 50 and over—making up 55 per cent of victims. In North Rhine Westphalia, the most populous region of Germany, police said they dealt with 1,250 cases of fraud in 2016 that cheated elderly people of eight million euros in total—and by August last year, the figure for 2017 was already higher than that.
Criminals trade “sucker lists” of easy targets—those who’ve already fallen for a scam, the majority of them pensioners. In the U.K. alone the government’s National Trading Standards office (that protects consumers and businesses from crime) has identified 300,000 targets’ names since 2012. Other scammers simply trawl Facebook in search of older people, explains Depuydt—or put out phony ads on social media.
Age UK, the largest British charity for older people, puts the rise in elder scams down partly to the fact that more over-50s are online now than ever before. People are also living longer, many with conditions such as cognitive decline. “We get calls consistently from relatives saying they’re worried about Mum or Dad in their 70s or 80s. In some cases they’re particularly concerned because they’re dealing with dementia or memory loss,” says policy manager Phil Mawhinney.
One scam has recently targeted particularly frail elders in a small town in Belgium. Leopold (not his real name), now 92, was driving into the town one day in June 2016. When he got out of his car, a man approached and told him he had hit his car and broken his wing mirror. He showed him the big black scratch. The man suggested that Leopold shouldn’t call his insurer, since he was old and might lose his insurance. Instead, on the spot he called a “repair man”, who told him the mirror would cost 2,500 euros to replace. He then took Leopold to a bank where he withdrew 900 euros. His daughter Jicky, who spoke to Reader’s Digest on behalf of her father since he was too frightened, said: “Dad told us he felt threatened when the guy raised his voice. After the man left, Leopold drove home to call his daughters, and on their urging reported the crime to police the next day. The scammers were never caught. But, says Jicky, the impact has been serious and long lasting. “Now my father is always worried,” she says.
A costly investment mistake
Other hoaxes have the potential for much larger losses, with investment scams known to be particularly damaging. Leonie Morris, 52, from Cumbria in England, was recently victim of a highly sophisticated investment scheme. At the time, Leonie, a former business coach—who has worked with big international firms such as Tesco Global—was looking forward to early retirement, planning to fund it by carefully investing her recent divorce settlement. Researching investments, she found a website that seemed to belong to the respected financial institution, Santander’s private banking arm, Cater Allen.
She typed in her contact details and received an email “from the CEO” at an official-looking address. She arranged a chat with a wealth broker named Jonathan Forbes, who sent her his direct number. “Because I’d got a story similar to his from other brokers about what investments were out there, I didn’t question him,” says Leonie. After they chatted on the phone, she bought a bond for £50,000 and started receiving monthly interest payments of £500, which convinced her the investment was real. After a couple of months, Forbes offered more investments. “I decided to buy into one. Then I could see the returns on the monthly statement I was getting, allegedly from Cater Allen, so I invested more—to the tune of nearly £400,000,” says Leonie.
One day shortly after Christmas 2017 she got a call from her bank. “They said one of the investment payments had gone through a banking clearing house and was showing some red flags,” she explains; that something didn’t look right. They couldn’t give details, but told her to call her broker. It then occurred to her to dial the number for Cater Allen’s main switchboard, rather than Forbes’s direct line. “There’s nobody here of that name,” said the woman’s voice down the phone. Leonie felt sick.
The bank website link, email and number he called from had been cloned—“Jonathan Forbes” was a fraudster living overseas. All her money was gone.
Leonie came out of early retirement and has gone back to full-time work. “It’s like being 18 again. I have to be really careful about what I buy and I can’t go on holiday,” she says. “Forbes” is meanwhile still out there—working under the same name, though claiming to be from different banks. Leonie counts her blessings that she can still earn a living—but others are not so lucky. Europol’s Peter Depuydt says: “These investment scams are damaging. It is at the end of people’s career, and they lose a lot.”
Stepping up worldwide efforts
Progress is being made in some countries as they grapple with scams running rampant. In Britain, the watchdog Payments Systems Regulator (PSR) called on banks urgently to help prevent scams after about 19,000 people lost more than a £100 million pounds in the first six months of 2017 alone to “authorized push payments scams” (any swindle where a person is tricked to make a transfer to a legitimate-seeming payee who turns out to be a scammer). From September this year, a new code will bring in better verification procedures to make it harder for scammers to open bank accounts, and easier for customers to verify that the person they are paying is who they say they are.
In September 2017, Italy’s Chamber of Deputies gave the go-ahead to a law that would introduce prison sentences of two to six years for scamming anyone over-65 years old. The proposal, which would also allow for fines of 400 to 3,000 euros, must be reviewed before it becomes law—but signalled Italy’s willingness to tackle elder scams.
The EU has ordered social media firms to “take more responsibility” against scams and ordered Facebook, Google and Twitter to remove hoax listings or face “enforcement action.” Europol’s Peter Dupuydt said the EU’s police force is stepping up efforts to raise awareness of different scams through a series of seminars and conferences. Europol aims ultimately to dismantle organized crime gangs that carry out the scams. A recent bust saw 20 people arrested in a joint Europol operation with Italian and Romanian police in March 2018; they are accused of stealing a million euros by obtaining banking details from hundreds of bank customers through phishing emails. However, he said if victims don’t report the crime then Europol never gets the data and it “can’t do much.”
Why the elderly are most at-risk
Organizations that care for elders, such as Sweden’s pensioners’ organization SPF Seniorerna, believe the answer is raising awareness. “Information, information, information. It is the only thing that works,” says secretary general Peter Sikstrom. Through more than 800 branches across the country, SPF Seniorerna offers education sessions and hands out leaflets to elders to put them on guard.
Meanwhile, in Holland, Harry van Schaik, a former police officer and fraud specialist in Utrecht, trains hundreds of elderly people there how to avoid scams. The people who take Van Schaik’s training tell him that they feel vulnerable partly because in Holland, they’ve been raised with Christian values, such as trust, that mean they can sometimes be naive. He teaches them all his tricks to avoid fraud—including that you should simply avoid long conversations with somebody who shows up at your door or calls you, as it is an opportunity for a criminal to exercise the influence and manipulation that is at the core of social engineering scams. Van Schaik is passionate about the work because, as he says, “Older people are being robbed. Simply put, it’s terrifying.”
In a society where older people often grow isolated and lonely, which can leave them more vulnerable to scams, it’s important to get connected. At the end of his training sessions, Van Schaik tells elderly people attending that they are must pass on their knowledge to others. “You must go out and talk to people,” he tells them, “and you will get energy back from it as well.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by Lis Daugaard, who never got her cash back, despite years trying to track down her scammer. But she found purpose in the months after her terrible romance scam by finding and helping other victims of romance fraud. She says it’s essential to start talking openly. “We have to make people more aware. It’s the only way to take the scammers’ market away.”
Next, find out the eight creepy things your smartphone knows about you.