En español | Warren Stelman knew the drill: Buy lists of filled-out sweepstakes entries to identify promising leads. Get computer-based phone lines and Manhattan voice-mail boxes to mask the true place of operation — the Dominican Republic. Then start calling older Americans.
Congratulations! You've won the sweepstakes! What are you going to do with all that money?
For "winners" envisioning college for the grandkids, perhaps, or financial independence for themselves, the several thousand dollars that Stelman and his crew requested upfront, supposedly for taxes and insurance, seemed a small price to pay.
By the time Stelman was arrested in August 2012, he and his alleged collaborators had collected nearly $1 million from at least 78 victims — most in their 70s and all over 50. In September 2013, he was sentenced to six years in prison.
Stelman's scam and his success with targeting older people were, sadly, nothing new.
Roughly one-third of all scam victims are 65 or older, though the age group comprises only one-eighth of the population. Based on reports, victims who are 55 and up lose $3 billion a year, but the true figure is many times higher, because most of these crimes go unreported out of embarrassment.
Sweepstakes cons like Stelman's are among the most common scams hitting older Americans. But keep a special eye peeled for these other hoaxes that rank with the biggest and baddest.
The Six Common Cons You Should Avoid
The Psychology of a Con Job
Scammers know what we want: to feel secure, loved and valued. And they know that the older we get, the more we need peace of mind.
To provide it, some use sweet talk, promising a solution to a problem: money for our shrinking nest eggs, companionship for our lonely hearts, a chance to show we matter. Others feign a problem that needs quick solving, perhaps with some warning about a potential danger.
"The scammer's goal is to get you to not think rationally, to operate on an emotional level," says Jean Mathisen, director of AARP's Fraud Fighter hotline (800-646-2283), which provides counseling, education and victim advocacy. "To put you 'under the ether,' as it's called." Some of the come-ons:
Congratulations, sir. We're sending you a free medical alert device. Now you can relax about your safety.
I know you love me, Grandma. Please send the money so I can get out of jail. I want to come home.
Maybe others don't care about you, but I do. I'll listen.
The natural aging process can cause changes in brain function that benefit scammers. Often subtle, even unnoticeable, these shifts often occur around the mid-60s.
At this age, the processing of information slows. This can make you more likely to fall for scams urging you to act immediately.
Age-related brain changes can hamper the ability to recognize facial expressions that signal deceit.
Lies repeated again and again are more likely to be perceived as true as you age, experts say. Con artists use tactics that rely on an erosion of memory or the ability to focus attention. "You forgot to pay me!" or "We agreed on this price" are phrases that are often used.
Sid Kirchheimer is the author of Scam-Proof Your Life, published by AARP Books/Sterling.
Also of Interest
- How to lower your risk of identity theft right now
- The best places to retire
- Get free help with your taxes with AARP Foundation Tax-Aide
Join AARP Today — Receive access to exclusive information, benefits and discounts