Meilin had worked all her life, and she saved her money frugally. She had lived, as she told me, a clean life. One day she was walking down the street near her home in Chinatown, and a woman she didn’t know came up to her and asked if Meilin knew where an address was, saying that at that address, there was a doctor who had healing powers. As they walked, the stranger asked Meilin all sorts of questions about her life. What Meilin didn’t know was that the “doctor” was listening through a cell phone, and when they met, pretended to know all about Meilin. The doctor warned her that a terrible tragedy was going to befall her family unless she brought in a bag full of her money and valuables to get blessed. Meilin, a deeply spiritual and traditional woman, did so. When the bag was returned, the items that were supposed to be blessed had instead been replaced by rocks. She had lost everything.
Meilin had fallen victim to the so-called “blessing scam,” which takes a few forms, but the basic shape is the same: con artists use cultural signifiers to target specific older adults. These scams target many groups, and many cultures, with age being the one uniting factor. They are all branches of financial abuse paired with elder abuse, cruelly taking advantage of trust, assumptions, and a sense of shared kinship. Loved ones of older adults have to help protect against these crimes, in order to help prevent them altogether. Awareness and activism are the best ways to expose these culture-oriented scams to protect people like Meilin.
How Culture-Oriented Financial Abuse Works
In every example of this type of abuse, a similar pattern is followed: using cultural connections (be they racial, ethnic, or even the common culture of shared experience) to form a bond, and then exploiting that for gain. Targeting older adults is seen as particularly lucrative, because of their savings and perceived vulnerability. As we will see, these scams can take many different forms.
This particular scam already assumes a connection, and exploits confusion and a possible lack of technological savvy among older adults in immigrant groups. In this scam, a grandparent who is living in America is called and told that their grandchild, usually in the home country, has been arrested (sometimes one scammer fakes being the grandchild, but quickly gives the phone to their “lawyer”). They need money wired right away, and they’ll get out of prison with no problems. They (of course) can’t go to their parents.
This scam seems easy to spot, but it is growing increasingly sophisticated thanks to the rise of social media. Scammers can go on a Facebook page, a Twitter feed, and an Instagram account, and try to learn everything they can about the grandchild and grandparent. They can use this to fake knowledge and a connection, play on sympathy, and also play up the corruption of a local law enforcement agency. People who come from countries where the rule of law is often determined by some money under the table are particularly susceptible to this scam.
Shady Loans Targeting Minority Groups
During the subprime mortgage crisis, it was revealed that people in African-American communities were targeted with subprime loans more often than any other group, irrespective of wealth. Middle-class black families had subprime mortgages pushed on them at a higher rate than even less-wealthy white families. This is part of a general pattern: smaller banks and fly-by-night mortgage and money lending schemes target minority groups, especially older adults in those groups who have an earned distrust of mainstream banking. Using in-group signifiers, they earn trust by creating a shared enemy, and promise an easy way to buy a house. For many of their targets, buying a house seemed out of reach their whole lives. Then these scammers came in and told them it was possible, and even easy. It’s a seductive message, and it too often works.
Investment Schemes That Hurt Widowed Men
Bereavement is a powerful tool for the scam artist. Bereavement-related loss can give anyone a lack of purpose and drive, and people try to fill that any way they can. Widowers, especially in older generations who have always had to “take care of things,” can feel this void particularly deeply. Men have been shown to be more likely to fall for Internet scams, especially when it comes to financing and investment scams. Part of this is certainly due to a desire to take control again, after a great and painful loss. This is true even—some argue especially—if they are financially literate. They may feel that they have to move forward, and not take the time to grieve, but to do something to re-establish themselves. Unscrupulous scam artists target widowers for precisely this reason. Though “widowed men” isn’t a culture, per se, they are still being targeted based on their identifiers, making this scam part of the pattern.
As hard as it may be to believe, there is a booming underground of scammers who specifically go after veterans, especially older veterans (Vietnam, Korea, WWII). One of the most common is the “financial advisor” who is also a fellow veteran (or so they say), who explains that if they hide some assets in a long-term investment scheme, the vet will look poor, and will be entitled to more benefits—the benefits they fought for. This is a very common scam, because it promises a healthy return down the road and an easement of any financial hardships now. The con artists seduce them with stories of how they are being denied their rightful benefits even though they need help, due to a quirk in the law. The victims are convinced they aren’t doing anything wrong. Of course, there are no benefits, and the money that is “invested” disappears. Even if the person is legitimately investing money, they are often doing so in long-term annuities that make little sense for an older adult, but allow the “advisor” to cash in on interest. Out of shame, and out of the belief that they are just as guilty, this scam is rarely reported.
As we will see, this lack of reporting makes the problem even worse.
What to Do About Elder Financial Abuse
Like the veteran, many victims of financial abuse don’t want to talk about it. They feel guilt about their actions, and feel ashamed that they have been suckered. Being scammed is not a thing anyone wants to talk about. Doing so, though, is the first step.
- Empathize and Report. It’s estimated that fewer than one out of 20 people who are scammed ever report it, largely due to embarrassment and the sense that nothing will get done. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle. If you feel that you are the only one taken in, you aren’t going to say anything—and then everyone else will also feel like they are the only one this happened to. It doesn’t have to be that way.
If someone you know has been taken advantage of, you have to assure them that they need not be ashamed. Con artists are very sophisticated, and take advantage of a lot of people, up to 25 million per year. If more people report what happened to them, more people will feel comfortable doing so, reversing the ugly pattern into something positive. This creates awareness.
- The Power of Awareness. Awareness helps more people understand that they are not alone, and it helps them come forward. More importantly, making these scams well-known means that fewer people will fall for them. If Meilin had known about the blessing scam, she would have never talked to the stranger, nor fallen for the doctor’s smooth appeals. She may have gone to the police right away, and stopped them from stealing from others. Awareness is the best prescription for prevention.
- Regulation and Enforcement. Right now, it’s hard for police to enforce anti-scam actions, partly because so few people report. There aren’t enough resources to devote to crimes when the victims aren’t seeking justice. Because of this, financial abuse units are understaffed. But with awareness, with pressure, and with more reporting, cities, states, and the federal government will take more notice and devote more resources to stopping it, and helping those who have fallen victim. It’s in everyone’s best interest to prevent scams, but it is hard to do so when the victims are standing in the shadows.
Financial abuse scams are always cruel, taking away what a person has been counting on to live a comfortable life after years of work. They can break apart families and cause a loved one to sink into depression, a depression for which they don’t always seek help, as doing so means admitting being conned. When an older loved one is targeted due to heritage or culture or shared experience, it can be even worse. They feel betrayed, and feel like part of their identity is now stolen.
As a community, we can do more. We can stand up against these scams, and help to remove the stigma from those who have been victims. That’s what they are: victims, not accomplices or dupes. They were hurt by professionals. This doesn’t have to be part of aging, and if we join as a community, and support our older loved ones, we can make these scams no longer be a part of our culture.
At Institute of Aging, we help families and older adults with the challenges and possibilities that come with aging. Our Elder Abuse Series highlights the problems that too many aging adults face. We want to help prevent it, and help you keep your loved one safe from physical, financial, mental, and emotional abuse. Connect with us today to learn more.