Stealing Seniors' Security

Jul 7, 2016

Ninety-six-year-old Rose became a fraud victim in 2013 when she received a sweepstakes letter in the mail at her northeast Iowa home, saying she’d won a Publisher’s Clearing House prize.

"I was supposed to get $2 million," she remembers. “It was my last paycheck and I cashed that. I think I even borrowed $8,000. And then he said they would be coming over. I said, 'how many people?’ and he said there’s seven of us. So I sent the money and nobody came."

Rose agreed to tell us her story if we didn’t use her real name. She lives alone and is fearful that the con artists will strike again. 

Over the course of several months Rose was contacted by phone hundreds of times and received dozens of pieces of mail claiming she’d won other prizes.  In return, she sent thousands of dollars in the form of personal checks, money orders, cash, and wire transfers.

U.S Postal inspector Tina Nobis got Rose’s case in 2014. She explains how such schemes often unfold. 

“I believe they’re [seniors are] very lonely and they’re just looking for someone to talk to them, who will listen to them who tell them their life story to," she said. "They draw them in little by little and then we have a problem."

By the time the fraud was reported, the scammers had robbed Rose not only of her life savings, but also of her dignity.

And I didn’t have anything," Rose said. "Didn’t have any money to pay my bills even. It was a struggle I had to be so careful to have enough money to live on."

Postal inspector Nobis says to make matters worse, many elderly victims have been swindled more than once.

They’ll tell them they’re the FBI or another federal agency the IRS is commonly used,” she explains. “Recently we had one where the threatened to put an article or an ad in the paper shaming them for what they had done and that caused the person to give more money."

The U.S Justice Department estimates last year the country’s elderly lost more than $2.6 billion to savvy career criminals. And that figure is just what was reported.

The best way to recover is to tell your story to let people know that it really does happen and there are things that you can do," says Shirley Merner, who works with the Iowa Senior Medicare Patrol. She says most victims remain silent because they’re embarrassed.

U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Iowa, Kevin Techau (left) leads the newly formed Iowa Elder Justice Task Force
Credit Pat Blank/IPR

One of the newest tools in the fight against fraud is the newly formed Iowa Elder Justice Task force. U.S Attorney for the Northern District of Iowa Kevin Techau says it’s made up of law enforcement officers, senior advocates and prosecutors.

Whether it’s financial exploitation or in long term care facilities, it’s a constant problem and the call to get everyone to work together is a chance to double down and do even a better job," Techau said.  

Techau’s office has added a health care fraud auditor and three paralegals to handle an expanding caseload. Iowa’s task force is one of ten nationwide.

As for Rose, her bank account is slowly recovering. With the help of her creditors and the utility company, she set up a payment plan to make sure her monthly bills are covered. Rose is still "Iowa nice", but she warns others not to fall into the trap that changed her life forever.

Don’t even listen to ‘em," she said. "Nobody’s gonna give you any money."

If the $2 million had been a real prize, Rose was planning to donate most of it to her church.

This month on Iowa Public Radio, we’re looking at some of the difficult issues that face Iowans, and how they’re being addressed.  In many cases, these problems challenge the state’s stereotypical demeanor known as “Iowa Nice”.  Hear more stories on Thursdays in July during Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and join our conversations related to this topic Thursdays on Talk of Iowa and River to River.