Photo by Matt Slaby/LUCEO
En español | When Barbara Latzer, 78, received a telemarketing call for a medical alert necklace subscription at $49 a month, she immediately said, "I can't afford that."
But for the next two months, Barbara and her husband, Raymond, 82, both legally blind and living in Northglenn, were barraged with calls. "Pay $248 to cancel the service." "We're not going to let you get out of this." "We'll call you day and night."
See also: Seniors hit by swindlers.
One caller claimed the company had taped Barbara agreeing to the service. "Can I hear the recording?" Raymond asked. "It'll cost you $500 to hear it in court," the caller replied.
Angry, Raymond called the Colorado Attorney General's Office and was referred to ElderWatch, an AARP Foundation program. An ElderWatch volunteer arranged a conference call among the medical alert company representative, Raymond and the volunteer. The hardball calls soon stopped.
With ElderWatch, Raymond said, "you're not standing alone."
ElderWatch was created in 2001 when the Colorado Attorney General's Office provided a $1 million start-up grant to the AARP Foundation to screen and attempt to resolve complaints of scams against older people in the state. Unresolved cases may be referred to police, securities investigators or other consumer resources.
Ongoing funding from the Attorney General's Office — $250,000 this year — also allows the roughly 180 ElderWatch volunteers to make presentations across Colorado, educating seniors on how best to protect themselves against consumer fraud.
Other organizations provide grants so volunteers can phone older people around the country when scams such as home repair schemes pop up. For instance, volunteers called seniors to warn them of charity scams after the Japanese tsunami.
Since 2001, ElderWatch volunteers have called more than 350,000 households to warn about scams and have handled more than 20,000 consumer complaints.
"Criminals believe that older Americans are in possession of a lot of wealth, right or wrong," said Jan Zavislan, Colorado deputy attorney general for consumer protection. This generation is generous and trusting, he said.
ElderWatch credits its success to peers talking to peers, which builds trust and understanding. Volunteers receive a day of training and work at least four hours a week in ElderWatch's Denver office.
Volunteers are people like Bill Wills, 74, a retired financial manager for the state government. "It keeps me involved," he said as he prepared for a morning of calls underneath a "wall of shame" pinned with lottery scams, fake checks and duplicitous emails.
"If you help one person, you make a difference," he said.
As callers tell Wills and other volunteers their stories, their confidence may grow to bring a complaint before a board or regulatory agency.
"Sometimes people want validation that they've been scammed," said Amy Nofziger, ElderWatch director. "We give it to them."
ElderWatch can help people spot a scam before they're snookered. But when a person has already sent money to a foreign lottery, for instance, it's almost impossible to get the money back.
Nofziger said that in 2010, Colorado seniors reported losses of $5.3 million to ElderWatch but recovered just $40,000.
Colorado Attorney General John Suthers said ElderWatch "has had a tremendous effect on seniors in Colorado. From educating them about common scams to fielding seniors' calls about issues they face, ElderWatch has been an extraordinary effective program."
The program is seeking Spanish-speaking volunteers. To volunteer, contact Julie Mangum, ElderWatch senior program assistant, at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 720-947-5302.
If you think you are a fraud victim, call 1-800-222-4444 and choose option 2 to report it.
Rachel Brand is a writer living in Denver.