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Consumer Confidential With David Lazarus
Column

Look closely, seniors, there's a financial scam in your future

Wanita Holmes could win $21,000 for solving a simple math puzzle.

She also could join a “club” that, in return for her sending $20 to three people, will result in her receiving “hundreds or even thousands of $20 gifts in the coming months and years.”

Or the Hancock Park resident could claim $5 million awaiting her from the Rich Secret and Occult Bank, as revealed by mystical signs at Mt. Rushmore, Niagara Falls and the U.S. Treasury Department.

Holmes, 87, has a ready answer to all this: “They must think I’m a damn fool.”

Or maybe the people behind these rackets think Holmes, because of her age, represents an easy mark for get-rich-quick schemes that run the gamut from highly deceptive to utterly laughable.

Wednesday was World Elder Abuse Awareness Day, aimed at educating the public about various ways seniors can be taken advantage of. The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors this week declared June 2016 Elder and Dependent Adult Abuse Awareness Month.

Financial scams figure prominently among pitfalls to watch for.

Seniors lose more than $36 billion a year to financial abuse, according to a survey by True Link Financial, a San Francisco firm that focuses on protecting the elderly from fraud. Nearly $13 billion of that amount is lost to scams.

“It’s not that older adults are stupid,” said Dr. Laura Mosqueda, a professor of geriatrics and family medicine at USC and director of the National Center on Elder Abuse. “So the question is, what is it about the aging brain that makes them more vulnerable to being scammed?”

New research at USC’s Keck School of Medicine suggests there’s a physiological reason that seniors fall victim to financial scams. Mosqueda said complex financial decisions require connections between different parts of the brain, “and those connections break down as we get older.”

“Science is just figuring this out,” she said. “Scammers have known about it for a long time.”

The so-called grandparent scam is a good example. A call is received from someone purporting to be the victim’s grandchild, or perhaps a police officer, and the victim is informed if he or she doesn’t wire some bail money pronto, grandkid will stay behind bars.

Another widespread scam of late has been a call from someone claiming to be with the Justice Department or Internal Revenue Service demanding unpaid tax money.

Then there’s all the stuff that arrives in the mail.

Holmes shared with me the various pitches she’s received over the last few months. Taken together, the mailings represent an aggressive campaign to separate her from the limited supply of money that gets her through her sunset years.

While Holmes had no trouble identifying the letters as rackets, she said she worries “about all the people who might fall for these things.”

Such as the official-looking letter from Wynfel Advisory Services letting Holmes know that her name “has been identified from a list of thousands of sweepstakes participants,” and that she’s eligible “to receive $1.2 million in cash and awards.” All Holmes has to do is send in a $19.99 “report fee.”

Then there’s the letter from Helena Bright, “voted clairvoyant of the millennium,” who foresees that if she performs a “fluidic purification and energetic recalibration,” Holmes could receive more than $400,000 in lottery winnings. All Holmes needs to do is provide a “modest offering” of between $15 and $34.99.

Not to be outdone, psychic Karl de Vista tells Holmes he will confide secret astrological numbers that will enable “at least $15 million” in lottery winnings. They’ll cost Holmes just $20 – as will each of the equally ludicrous schemes at the top of this column.

Many of these scams originate overseas, making the perpetrators hard to catch. But the occasional arrest does get made.

A South L.A. man was arrested last week on federal fraud charges for allegedly participating in a lottery scam that targeted seniors, according to the U.S. attorney’s office. The man allegedly duped victims by promising lottery and sweepstakes winnings if the victims wired money to cover “taxes and fees.”

Nearly $200,000 was lost by 25 known victims, authorities said. Much of the cash ended up in Jamaica.

Richard Franco, program manager for L.A. County’s Adult Protective Services, said the fact that many seniors are on fixed incomes makes them attentive to the possibility of a sudden windfall of cash. Their frequent isolation from others prevents them from seeking a reality check when an offer might be too good to be true.

“And there’s another thing,” Franco said. “Today’s seniors come from a very trusting generation.”

Rigo Reyes, chief of investigations for the L.A. County Department of Consumer and Business Affairs, said that “once a con artist gets through to an isolated senior, he’ll have answers to any questions the senior might raise.”

He and Franco advised seniors to approach all interactions with strangers with a healthy measure of skepticism. Be especially careful in responding by phone to a fast-money offer. “Once they get you to respond, it becomes very hard to avoid being scammed,” Reyes said.

Just as important, report any losses to authorities. Reyes and Franco said it’s impossible to know precisely how large a problem elder financial abuse is because many seniors are too embarrassed or ashamed to make their victimization known. Keeping things to themselves, the experts said, only makes it likely that they’ll be hoodwinked again down the road.

I asked Holmes her advice for anyone who gets the kind of mailings she’s been receiving.

“That’s easy,” she replied. “Throw them away. They’re garbage.”

David Lazarus' column runs Tuesdays and Fridays. He also can be seen daily on KTLA-TV Channel 5 and followed on Twitter @Davidlaz. Send your tips or feedback to david.lazarus@latimes.com.

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