ACA Blog

Hope Yancey
Sep 21, 2011

A Cautionary Tale Ends Safely

The voice on the other end of the telephone starts out with something like, “It’s me, Grandma. Don’t you recognize my voice?” And there begins another scam designed to take advantage of a senior citizen. These crimes are not uncommon, unfortunately.

We all read or watch news stories about older adults preyed upon by scammers, some of them losing their hard-earned savings, or personal property with financial and sentimental value. The circumstances of the crime may even place them in jeopardy of physical harm, if the scammer initiates any in-person contact as part of the con – perhaps the perpetrator accosts the victim in a parking lot, offering to accompany them to their home or bank. Or maybe they want to come in person to collect on whatever they’ve talked the victim into giving them over the phone.

An older adult in my life was recently targeted by a phone scammer posing as a male relative who happens to live out-of-town. The caller concocted a bizarre story about being in Spain with a broken nose and needing her to provide money. He instructed her not to reveal the nature of the call to anyone. It appeared, at least, that he knew the first name of the relative he was impersonating.

(A side note: some consumer websites where I’ve researched phone scams indicate the “broken nose” trick as opposed to, say, a broken leg, is to explain away why the caller doesn’t sound like the victim’s relative. Some also indicate it’s usually the victim who inadvertently volunteers the name of a relative, which the caller then quickly assumes.) Other elements of the scam are strategic, too.

Rather than agreeing to send money, in this case the older adult in question had the presence of mind to ask details of the caller to verify his claims, which brought an end to the call immediately, and she contacted police. Good for her. Too often, we see older adults portrayed in helpless positions, vulnerable. It’s hopeful to know of situations that don’t end badly. The call was upsetting. The caller wasted her time and that of her family, but nothing else was lost. It could certainly have been worse.

In the days since this incident, I’ve shared what happened with others, and they added their own anecdotes of older adults who’d had brushes with scammers, some losing valuables or coming close to doing so. It’s disturbing how many stories there are like this. And how many more might there be, only the victims are too ashamed to come forward because they fear they’ll be ridiculed?

Many of us have an interest in specific populations, whether we end up working with them or not. In graduate school, I took part in a group presentation with classmates entitled “Dignity, Not Despair: Empowering Older Adults.” Although the project was not about crimes against this demographic, I am reminded of the title and its salience now.

I’ve noticed a general uptick in the number of suspicious calls – and sales calls in violation of the National Do Not Call Registry – placed to my phone numbers in recent weeks. I don’t know if it’s the faltering economy, or if something else is to blame. I’m paraphrasing a public service announcement that used to run years ago where I live: “Sometimes, it’s not rude to just hang up.” Remember this maxim, and remind the older adults in your circle, too.

Hope Yancey is a counselor and freelance writer living in Charlotte, North Carolina

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