A Target of Opportunity: How Scam Artists Target Older Vets, and What You Can Do to Protect Those You Love
By now we should all be aware that scam artists and fraudsters have no conscience. These bottom-dwellers routinely target the most vulnerable and the most trusting among us, including grandparents, single seniors, and people with the beginning of cognitive decline. Now, thanks to this recent article from the NextAvenue website, we’re reminded of another group of seniors that has landed in the crosshairs of the conmen: aging veterans.
In this timely article, reporter Rachel Leland identifies some of the current scams that are victimizing aging veterans. These include fraudsters promising to help vets qualify for assistance through the VA, and other so-called veterans claiming to represent bogus veterans aid groups. It adds up to billions lost annually from aging men and women who can’t afford such a drain on meager resources. We hope that you’ll take a look at Leland’s article, and then do what you can to ensure that a veteran you love doesn’t become the next victim.
The Aid and Assistance Scam
Leland begins her NextAvenue article with the chilling story of Johnnie Ray Toland and his family. “As aging World War II veteran Johnnie Ray Toland started showing signs of Alzheimer’s, his family began searching for an assisted living home to care for him,” Leland writes. “Staff members at one home introduced the family to Tammi Palasini.”
She adds, “Palasini, who would later be sentenced to 20 years behind bars for various crimes, including fraud, convinced the Toland family to give her control of $340,000 of their funds.”
What Palasini engaged in is what is known as an “aid and assistance scam.” In this scam, the scammer promises to help a family like the Tolands diversify their loved one’s assets to get beneath the threshold to qualify for VA benefits and earn a return on their investment.
In the Tolands’ case, they didn’t discover the scam until three years later, after Johnnie’s death. Leland writes, “On the same day as Toland’s funeral, a postal inspector contacted the victim’s son, Jimmy, and told him of Palasini’s fraudulent schemes, revealing that on the same day they gave Palasini control of the $340,000, she used their money to purchase a race car and advertising for her son.”
Bogus Companies, False Promises Cost Vets Millions
As you might imagine, the Tolands were not Palasini’s only victims. Not by a long shot. Before she was caught, she scammed 78 veterans out of more than $2 million in assets. She used various means to do this, including a fraudulent investment company called “Veterans’ Pension Planners of America.”
“About 2.4 million Americans filed fraud complaints with the Federal Trade Commission last year, reporting aggregate losses of nearly $8.8 billion,” Leland writes. “That was an increase of more than 30 percent over the previous year, the commission said.”
Sadly, veterans and military families are at a higher risk for scams than civilians by a whopping 40 percent, according to a November 2021 AARP survey. “The FTC’s Consumer Sentinel consumer complaint database received over 200,000 complaints from military consumers in 2021 alone, with reported losses exceeding $267 million,” Leland explains.
And the older population of veterans—around 19 million people—are at the very highest risk. One of the most common of these scams happens over the phone, when scammers call veterans to warn them of “impending issues” with their VA benefits.
“Thankfully,” Leland adds, “awareness of the scams that target older veterans is growing, as indicated by the rise of new educational resources such as the AARP Veterans Fraud Center and the United States Postal Inspection Service’s Operation Protect Veterans.” Nevertheless, the danger of being victimized remains high.
Tips for Older Veterans and Their Families
As traumatic as it can be being the victim of a scam, there are ways to prevent and fight back against them by keeping your eye out for certain signs and signals and acting quickly.
One common trick: many scammers will pose as a representative of your bank of other financial provider. It’s worth assuming that any calls, texts, or emails from your bank that say your account is at risk could be a scam.
“My rule of thumb is don’t take the call, make the call,” says Mike Steinbach, Head of Global Fraud Prevention at Citi. “Pick up the phone and call the phone number listed on your credit card, debit card or monthly financial statement to confirm whether the request is legitimate.”
Another one of a scammer’s most effective tools is a sense of urgency, when victims are told they have to act immediately, but the urgency is all false. Scammers put time limits on your ability to respond so that you don’t have any breathing room to check whether they’re telling the truth. “If someone contacts you and pressures you with time constraints to hand over sensitive information like your Social Security number or credit card details, it’s usually bogus,” Leland writes.
“Your gut is your most valuable resource and your first line of defense,” Steinbach says. “If something seems wrong, keep your personal information private.”
Scammers Claim to Represent Veterans Groups
“Many scammers falsely claim to represent non-profit veterans’ organizations or even the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and try to scare veterans by claiming you could face legal action unless you provide your Veteran Health Identification Card ID or other sensitive information,” Leland warns. “According to the Postal Inspection Service, veterans are exceptionally vulnerable to scams where the culprit poses as a military member. Due to their military experiences, some veterans may find it hard to detect the emotional manipulation these scam artists deploy on their victims.”
Steinbach adds, “Your first step is to immediately call the government agency via their official hotline — not the number that called you — to confirm whether the request is legitimate.”
Quick Action, Technological Solutions Can Stem Losses
Near the end of the article, Leland shares the story of the Lee family. Steve Lee’s parents, both in their mid-80s, were contacted by organizations claiming to have ties to the military and to first responders. “Lee’s mother and father, who served in the Ohio National Guard, gave their credit card number to legitimate-sounding telemarketers and lost $705 in 17 different transactions within three weeks,” Leland writes.
Thankfully, Lee and his parents acted as quickly as they could, once they realized there was a problem. They called their bank’s debit card fraud control and had a new card issued. “The couple also purchased a call blocker for the landline that only allows calls from numbers permitted on an app synced with their mobile contacts,” Leland adds.
Steinbach explains, “The sooner you spot potentially fraudulent activity, the sooner you can work to address and resolve it. Take advantage of technology that tracks your accounts and purchases in real-time. Sign up for push alerts from your bank, and regularly check your statements online.”
Leland and other experts recommend finance management apps like EverSafe to help keep fraudulent activity at bay. These apps oversee your bank accounts and credit card activity and flag any irregularities.
“Apps like EverSafe are designed with older adults in mind,” Leland explains, “and even have a ‘trusted advocate’ tool that gives adult children of aging parents and other trusted caregivers access to monitor the account’s activity.”
She adds, to conclude the article: “No matter their age, men and women who have served this country deserve to retire secure in the knowledge that their life savings are safe.” We say a hearty “Amen” to that.
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(originally reported at www.nextavenue.org)