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Financial Planning > Behavioral Finance

The fight against fraud

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In a small condo in Los Angeles, in the shadows of Hollywood, an 82-year-old retiree named Ron* lived alone. No kids, no wife, not even an ex to pester him with an outdated honey-do list. From the windows of his condo, Ron couldn’t see the famous Hollywood sign, but he knew it was there. So much went on outside those windows, a whole glittering world. The stars that appeared on the big screens of multiplexes were real, and they lived just around the corner from Ron, just outside those windows, but they might as well have been the stars twinkling in the sky.

In the summer of 2013, when Ron’s phone rang and the man on the other end of the line gave him a pitch, Ron listened. He had a good mind to hang up on the caller and go back to whatever was playing on the television. And yet, that voice made him want to listen. The voice was friendly. The voice was persuasive. The voice promised a Mercedes. The voice promised a lottery to the tune of $250,000. And Ron listened to every word. He’d never won anything in his life. He wasn’t completely convinced he had won anything now. But he listened anyway. The voice said this call will change your life forever and, for once, the voice wasn’t lying.

The elder fraud epidemic

Elder fraud didn’t begin with the advent of telephones or cutting-edge technology, though these inventions have allowed thieves easier access to other people’s money. A 2011 study by MetLife tabbed the bill of financial fraud against American seniors at $2.9 billion a year. The actual number is much higher, as the vast majority of elder abuse cases go unreported due to the victim’s fear, embarrassment or refusal to turn in the perpetrator. 

According to a report released by the 2015 White House Conference on Aging, “Elder abuse is a serious public health problem affecting millions of older Americans each year, with some studies suggesting that as few as one in 23 cases is reported to authorities.” 

With the aging population doubling over the next several decades and wily criminals inventing new ways to exploit the elderly, those numbers are poised to explode. “In 2050, the number of Americans aged 65 and older is projected to be 88.5 million, more than double its projected population of 40.2 million in 2010,” according to a U.S. Census Bureau study from that year.

The variety of schemes to pry money away from elder Americans is dizzying, and the man who scammed Ron comes in many guises. Sometimes he wears the face of a Bernie Madoff, who makes headlines by stealing billions from wealthy clients through Ponzi schemes; sometimes he’s a Nigerian prince asking for a good-faith payment; sometimes he’s a conniving family member who seeks a hefty nest egg. Sometimes, though, he’s the waiter at your favorite restaurant, who takes your credit card and disappears around a corner to run your card through a device called a skimmer. The skimmer costs as little as $19.95 on Amazon or eBay, takes less than a second to record your card information and can store up to 10,000 cards at a time.

But no matter the face the man assumes, he is the same man, a man who often preys on the confusion, the trust, the loneliness of strangers who are willing to buy his line. He is, for lack of a better word, a crook, and he is everywhere. And if you’re not taking the precautions to protect your assets and identity, then more than likely he already has your information.

*Client names and some details were changed to protect client privacy.

Cary JohnsonIdentity theft and the evangelist

“The elderly are only the second most targeted demographic of financial crooks,” says Cary Johnson, Director of Crime Prevention with the Jefferson County Colorado District Attorney’s office. Johnson is speaking to a group of widows at one of the nation’s largest megachurches in the affluent Denver suburb of Highlands Ranch. The setting suits Johnson, who served in the clergy in California and Oregon for 22 years before becoming an evangelist against financial fraud. 

“Do you know who’s number one?” 

There’s just enough fire and brimstone in Johnson’s words to get the ladies to sit up and take notice. He pauses and scans the faces of the widows whose chairs form a circle around him.

“Well, do you?” 

Johnson’s voice stops just short of belligerence. Periodically, during a talk, he likes poking the elders who attend his workshops to make sure they’re awake and paying attention. The ladies shake their heads that they don’t have a clue as to the answer. Even the lady beside me, who’s seated in a Rascal and wearing a neck brace, gives her head a little wiggle.

“The number one age group targeted by identity thieves is 18- to 25-year-olds!”

The widows gasp. That’s their kids and grandkids, their babies. “Almost all of our identity theft is related to meth addiction. That’s who’s doing it. It’s moving to heroin, if you can believe that. But it’s meth for now,” Johnson says.

The news is almost too much for the room. There’s a collective inhale. Someone says, “Oh, Lord!” Perhaps a blasphemous offense under normal conditions inside these walls, but quickly forgiven considering the subject at hand.

“And we’re the meth hub for the United States. Denver is the meth hub.”

“Oh my!” says the woman with the neck brace. “Oh my! Oh my! Oh my!”

“Yeah,” Johnson says, acknowledging her shocked response. “With the great Northeast/Southwest highway system, we’re perfect to move all the meth. And Colorado is usually about fifth in the U.S. for identity theft. California is number one.”

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) estimates that about nine million Americans are victims of identity theft each year, and Johnson would like to get that number to zero with meetings like this one. In 2001, the Denver District Attorney’s office received a Justice Assistance Grant from the Department of Justice in Washington, DC, with the aim of developing a crime prevention program to keep older adults safe. In 2002, they brought in Johnson — who was serving as a police chaplain at the time — to guide the Crime Prevention Program.

“Initially, the plan was to train clergy and have them teach their congregations how to be safe,” he tells me in an earlier interview. “But too many of them didn’t feel comfortable with speaking about the topic themselves, so I told them, ‘Why don’t you call me when your people are together. I’ll speak directly to the elderly.’ We did 125 programs the first year.”

A few years later, with the program expanded beyond churches, Johnson was conducting 220 seminars, going anywhere people were willing to meet and hear a talk on financial fraud. Since those early days, Johnson has developed programs throughout Colorado and trained educators around the country on how to keep America’s elderly safe from financial fraud and identity theft.

“I’ve given as many as five workshops in a day,” Johnson says. “Sometimes, it gets insane, seriously.” 

“You must love it though, right?” I ask. 

“I do love it. To this day, I’ve done more than 1,500 of these workshops and I still love it. I love getting in front of audiences. I love thinking that these people are going to be safer when I leave.”

Christian CordobaRon revisited

By the time Christian Cordoba learned of the scam against Ron, the thieves had taken $170,000 of the retiree’s assets.

Cordoba is a retirement specialist in Southern California. With his high cheekbones and bright smile, he has the polished good looks of the news anchors that grace the TV screens of Angelenos from Palm Desert to Palos Verdes. Two decades ago, Ron was referred by a client of Cordoba, who has managed some of Ron’s assets ever since.

“One day in 2014, one of my assistants contacted me about Ron,” says Cordoba, who is the president and founder of El Segundo-based California Retirement Advisors and offers securities through First Allied Securities, Inc., a registered broker/dealer. “Ron received a monthly distribution from his account, but he had been making additional requests for distributions above the set monthly amounts, and that raised a red flag.” Cordoba, says the requests from Ron were becoming more frequent, more urgent, and they called Ron to see what was going on.

At first, Ron’s answers seemed reasonable. He needed to pay back a personal loan to a friend. He had car repairs. Those crazy California property taxes were due. At a certain point though, Ron ran out of excuses to give and began recycling the reasons why he needed the extra money. 

“At that time, we began discussing with him the fact that many seniors today are taken advantage of, and we just wanted to make sure he was not one of them,” Cordoba says. “Eventually he told us his story, that he had won a sweepstakes.”

Prevention is the key

When that first call came in, a part of Ron didn’t want to believe it. Really he didn’t. But he kept clinging to the voice on the other end of the line and the voice told Ron he needed to make a good-faith payment to unlock his winnings. 

“What prompted you to give them the money?” Cordoba asked him.

“I’ve never won anything in my life,” said Ron. “They promised me I’d won something. I’d won a prize. They said they had my lottery earnings and car in storage, and if I paid them I’d get my winnings.”

And so Ron paid the voice by way of Western Union, the voice of a person he’d never actually met. The money dripped from his bank account — $4,000 or so at a time — and when that money was gone, Ron ran up an additional $40,000 on his credit card. With the card maxed out, he finally turned to the asset account that Cordoba managed. Working with his client, Cordoba was able to put a stop to the payments being made to the scammers, effectively preserving the assets that Ron had under his management.

Ron wasn’t as lucky with his personal savings, much of which were already gone, as were the thieves — gone like ghosts, already on to their next mark.

Lee ThomasTo catch a thief

“It gets very challenging to catch them,” says Sergeant Ana Brun of the Lakewood Police Department. Brun and Detective Lee Thomas, also of the Lakewood Police Department, are protégés of Cary Johnson and work to educate seniors about the financial dangers facing the elderly.

“These phone calls can come from anywhere, and it can make it look like it’s coming from Denver. You can create any email address and dump it two days later. You can use burner phones, which have no tracking. There’s a large amount of it that cannot be investigated, that’s why I’m saying prevention is the key.”

Sometimes, even when the perpetrator is known, the crime still goes unpunished, according to Detective Thomas. “We had a case of financial crime where a daughter was financially exploiting her very elderly mother and she was charged with several felonies.”

But as often happens in domestic abuse cases, the victim would not cooperate with the prosecution, according to Thomas. “She didn’t want her daughter [in jail], so Adult Protective Services was able to arrange to get a conservator in charge of the mom’s money, and there had been no allegations of any physical abuse, so the District Attorney’s office allowed her to plea to a misdemeanor and drop the felonies.”

On July 1, 2014, a law went into effect in Colorado to protect the state’s elders. Mandatory Reporting of Elder Abuse (§C.R.S. 18-6.5-108) requires employees and volunteers in a wide range of professions to report to police within 24 hours if they suspect someone 70 or older is being abused or exploited. Colorado was the 48th state to pass the law, according to the Department of Human Services.

“The law covers physical abuse as well,” says Thomas, “but from the financial perspective, the DA’s office, police department and Adult Protective Services have all done outreach to financial institutions and to senior places to make them aware of the law.”

“What kind of mandatory reporting have you received?” I ask.

“The financial institutions are watching for irregular behaviors that crop up,” says Brun. “We’ll hear from them if they have somebody come in who is trying to take a large amount of money out and put it on a Green Dot card or to wire money,” she says. “If a person with an account comes in and says ‘I need five grand, I need it today, and I need it wired to wherever.’ In that instance, that bank has to call us within 24 hours to notify us.”

A fraud hotline instituted by Cary Johnson has also resulted in an uptick in the number of financial fraud cases being reported. At every workshop he organizes, Johnson gives out a magnet with the hotline number on it, so seniors can stick it on their refrigerators.

“We’re up to 120 calls a month,” Johnson says. “I probably take another 200 calls a month on my direct line. And we tell our seniors that they’re going to get a live person and, boy, seniors like that.”

Elder FraudThe cognitive question

At this point, you may be asking yourself why anyone of sound mind would willingly hand over money to a scam artist. In Ron’s case, as in so many cases involving elder fraud, the question of cognitive abilities complicates the issue. Even after finally admitting to Cordoba what had taken place, Ron still couldn’t bring himself to accept that he had been scammed. He kept holding out hope that he would get his winnings, which Cordoba could only construe as cognitive impairment, a form of early dementia. At the very least, his decision-making was not good. Even when faced with all the facts of what had happened, he continued to wire money to the crooks. 

After talking with Ron, Cordoba had questions about his client’s mental health and brought the case to Adult Protective Services as well as the DA’s office and local law enforcement. When tested, though, “we were not able to get a doctor to state that Ron was incompetent,” Cordoba says. “They saw it that he was in fact of sound mind and healthy, with the exception of having become a horrible judge of circumstances and now trusting of total strangers, which was not a diagnosis that was able to have him deemed incompetent.”

What Ron did agree to was allowing his niece to sit in on a meeting with Cordoba. “It ultimately took his willingness, after sitting with us and his niece and recognizing his path to destruction, that he willfully agreed to put her in charge of his finances,” says Cordoba. They were able to develop a plan to get Ron out of trouble. They sold his house to pay off the debt and, with the remaining money and a long-term care policy that pays $5,200 a month, Ron was checked into a memory facility.

Cordoba says it’s difficult, even heartbreaking, to think back to his conversations with Ron, who would almost get the situation pinned down, get full understanding of what was going on only to slip back into holding out hope that his payoff would finally come in with the next $4,000 wire transfer. Cordoba is shaken, recalling a conversation he had with his client.

“Ron, what makes you think this time will be any different?” Cordoba asked him.

“I just have a hunch. I’ve lost a lot of money, really a lot. It’s put me in a hole. I’ve been scratching just to maintain a living. That’s why.”

“I’m your advisor. I’m your friend,” Cordoba said. “I’m trying to understand your situation, Ron. After you didn’t get your money the first time or even the second time you wired them money, why didn’t you stop? What do you think will happen this time that will be any different?”

Ron paused for a long time, searching the recesses of his unreliable memory for an answer. 

“I just have a hunch.”

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