AG fighting to protect seniors from scams, schemes and consBy GRETCHEN M. GROSKY
New Hampshire Union Leader
August 20. 2017 1:53AM
An uncle you've never heard of just died and left you $2 million.
You've just won $5 million in a Jamaican lottery you never entered.
The IRS has a warrant for your arrest, your grandson has been kidnapped, and by the way, your computer has a virus that can only be removed by shelling out $500 in iTunes gift cards.
In 2016, 22.1 million Americans fell victim to phone scams like these, losing over $9.5 billion to con artists, according to a study by Truecaller, a company with a spam-fighting phone app. AARP reports that someone falls victim every two seconds, and half of those victims are older than 50.
It's a similar story in the Granite State. The Attorney General's office receives more than 30 calls a week from people either reporting a scam or admitting to falling for one. Because of the sheer number of schemes and perpetrators, the state's top law enforcement agency knows it's a battle that can't be won in the courtroom.
"There are way too many cases, too many for us to handle by ourselves," said James Boffetti, chief of the Attorney General's Consumer Protection and Antitrust Bureau. "They are constantly one step ahead of us. They hide under rocks and we're lifting those rocks and trying to figure out where they are."
Instead, they hope to win the fight in the community.
Boffetti, Assistant Attorney General Brandon Garod and victim advocate Sunny Mulligan Shea have teamed with AARP New Hampshire to educate seniors, caregivers, law enforcement, bank tellers, Meals on Wheels drivers, and anyone else who will listen to them talk about spotting scams and how to avoid being taken by one.
"We just want to be the voice in their head that says 'you are being scammed,'?" Boffetti said.
On Sept. 19, Attorney General Gordon MacDonald and Vermont Attorney General T.J. Donovan will join AARP in hosting a two-state "Scam Jam" at the Lake Morey Inn in Fairleigh, Vt., to talk about elder fraud schemes.
"Like they say, the best offense is a good defense," said Todd Fahey, state director of AARP New Hampshire.
Most of these crimes are still perpetrated over the phone, but Garod said scammers are increasing their use of social media to find new victims. He said many of those taken live alone and are drawn to the promise of excitement, opportunity and companionship.
"It's particularly insidious when they're after someone who is isolated and lonely," Boffetti said.
The schemers use what's called "ether" to get an emotional response from their marks to get them on the hook. Ether is what AARP calls a "heightened emotional state that makes it hard to think clearly and make rational decisions."
Boffetti said they create the ether and gain trust by asking personal questions or using information they have found out about the person through stolen information, social media or elsewhere. They might ask about their victim's health, after seeing that person checked in online at the doctor's office earlier in the week. They might ask about that beautiful granddaughter pictured in a post.
"These scammers do their research. There's a lot of grooming going on, and they are very skilled," Boffetti said. "Before you know it, thousands of dollars are out the door."
Fahey said they will even use obituaries to find that "in" with a victim.
"There is artistry to it. It's the reason why they are called a con artist," Fahey said. "It's truly artistic but there is no beauty in it."
Once a person makes contact, it becomes a constant barrage of calls, Mulligan Shea said. She said she was at the home of a victim and in less than hour, these con artists called eight times.
"They can be aggressive and if you engage them, you will be bombarded," Boffetti said.
Garod's advice is simple: "Don't answer the phone." He said that can be hard for people, especially for those living alone.
"If someone is calling and it's important they will leave a voice mail," Garod said. "Once they get you on the phone, they have all the power."
And if they get you on the phone?
"Stop. Take a break and just think about it," Garod said.
Reporting the scam is important. The Federal Trade Commission takes reports of scams online, and AARP has created a map of ongoing scam reports at aarp.org/fraudwatchnetwork. The interactive map contains thousands of reports from people warning of what type of scam was tried and how they tried to do it. There are about 50 such reports from Granite Staters on the map.
Mulligan Shea said if a person is victimized, it is usually hard to get them to admit it. They are often embarrassed, ashamed and afraid their decision will lead family members to put them in a nursing home.
Admitting to the mistake is one of the best ways to fight back, she said.
"We're encouraging them to scream it from the rooftops because they may be saving their friends," Mulligan Shea said. "Don't be embarrassed. Don't be ashamed."
Boffetti also recommends that caregivers keep careful watch of an older person's bank accounts, credit reports and check their voicemail.
Boffetti said most of the scammers operate out of Jamaica, Ghana, India and other places overseas, making them harder to catch - but sometimes they are.
Earlier this year, the so-called "mastermind" of a notorious IRS scheme was arrested in India along with 70 possible runners for his operation. In 2016, the Better Business Bureau found that the IRS scheme made up 25 percent of all scams reported nationwide.
Sagar Thakkar, 24, allegedly set up call centers where schemers impersonated IRS and immigration officials and threatened arrest or deportation if the person on the phone did not pay up. Federal officials estimate the scheme took in as much as $150,000 a day.
The IRS followed with several arrests of similar schemers operating here in the United States. Last month, an alleged runner for an IRS phone scheme was arraigned in U.S. District Court in Worcester, Mass.
Ashokkumar Patel is charged with three counts of wire fraud, conspiracy to commit wire fraud and money laundering after allegedly scamming three elderly Massachusetts residents out of more than $360,000. Authorities said he claimed his victims would be arrested if they did not pay their back taxes.
There is often little recourse for the victims.
"You're never going to get the money back," Fahey said. "That's what's sad. Everything they worked for will be gone."
Silver Linings is a continuing Union Leader/Sunday news report focusing on the issues of New Hampshire’s aging population and seeking out solutions. Union Leader reporter Gretchen Grosky would like to hear from readers about issues related to aging. She can be reached at email@example.com or (603) 206-7739. See more at www.unionleader.com/aging.