Since February, Patricia Candelaria has spent nearly $200,000 on "taxes and insurance" to claim a sweepstakes prize she will never get.
"In one instance, she sent $4,100 in a magazine to Costa Rica" after being instructed to place $100 bills between pages, says her son-in-law, Jody Hadley. "She has sent at least six wire transfers overseas ... that we can document, and there are a dozen other bank withdrawals we can't account for."
Hadley says the contest representative, who identified himself as David Sommers of the National Contest Association, called Candelaria, 83, constantly. "Sometimes he was her best friend, other times he threatened to come to her house to get his money," he says. "He even mailed her an 'invoice' " for $25,830 in past-due payments.
"It's clear that he's toying with her," says Hadley, 61, a retiree in Fullerton, Calif. "And yet she keeps sending money."
Hadley says Candelaria—tests show she doesn't have dementia—sees contest reps as her allies. "We, her protectors, her children, are the enemy, trying to interfere with her becoming rich," he adds. "When we're not around, she calls a taxi and sneaks off to the bank to make more withdrawals."
Hadley has set up a post office box to get Candelaria's mail and says he has intercepted 600 contest entries in the last few months. "We've told her over and over that this is clearly a scam that's ruining her," he says. "The next step is to get power of attorney."
But good intentions such as Hadley's might explain why Candelaria and thousands of other scam victims are swindled repeatedly, says Anthony Pratkanis, a social psychologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and co-author with AARP's Douglas Shadel ofWeapons of Fraud.
"For scam victims to admit they were wrong means they're stupid and unable to take care of themselves," he says. "When protectors take over finances or lecture victim parents about their mistake, it plays right into the scammers' hands" by threatening the target's independence.
"Sommers" and his associates operate phone lines with New York and Las Vegas area codes, but authorities believe they may be outside the United States using cell phones. When contacted by Scam Alert, Sommers asked, "How did you find out about us?" before hanging up. He did not answer follow-up calls.
Pratkanis says these telemarketers gain victims' trust by calling often, boosting their self-esteem and by bad-mouthing their children and other watchdogs. He offers some tips for countering a relative's allegiance to scammers and protecting against repeated rip-offs.
Turn victims into protectors. Help them see the fraud for themselves. Ask how you can play the contest with them. If they realize you could be victimized, they might reverse roles and become your protector.
Create a "get-off-the-phone" plan. Besides having an unlisted number and caller ID, targets can stop telemarketing fraud by putting an unknown caller on hold—indefinitely.
Be aware of vulnerable periods. Victims are especially susceptible to fraud in the three years after a traumatic experience—financial problems, the loss of a spouse or a change in health or housing.
If the calls continue, consider changing phone and bank account numbers.
To learn more, contact the National Fraud Information Center at 1-800-876-7060 or at fraud.org/tips/telemarketing. For a free copy ofWeapons of Fraud, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sid Kirchheimer is the author of AARP/Sterling's “Scam-Proof Your Life.”