Prosecutor warns of scams targeting seniors

An 81-year-old Morgan Hill man who thought he had won $2 million in a Publishers Clearing House sweepstakes instead lost more than $50,000 to scammers last month. Although the perpetrators likely live overseas and could not be identified or prosecuted, quick action by family members and local law enforcement officials eventually led to the retrieval of the funds.

Most victims are not so lucky, warned Deputy District Attorney Cherie Bourlard. She spoke to the Town Crier last week and shared tips for keeping finances secure.

Q: How often do you see cases like this?

A: Just our elder fraud hotline, we probably get calls once or twice a week. … It’s prolific, and I would say billions of dollars yearly is leaving the United States due to scams such as this.

Q: What steps by the victim’s family helped the D.A. and the Morgan Hill Police Department reunite him with his money?

A: The reporting party and his father-in-law worked with the bank to get all of their bank records, account numbers, signed copies of the cashier checks that were wired to help the detective to be able to trace the money. The key to being able to investigate and prosecute this is by jumping on it right away, especially if we want to have any luck of recovering any kind of money.

Q: In which regions of the world do these scams typically originate?

A: I’m seeing it primarily from Nigeria and from Jamaica. We’re starting to see it go to Costa Rica. We’re starting to see it go to China. I don’t think people in China are the callers, but they’re laundering the money through those avenues. I do think the callers originate in internet cafes in areas such as Nigeria and Jamaica.

Q: Might hype over the recent record-setting, $1.6 billion Mega Millions lottery jackpot have influenced this particular incident?

A: I don’t think so. I think that these callers over in Nigeria, sitting in internet cafes, are just calling and calling and calling and calling and calling and calling and calling. This is more of a sweepstakes rather than a lottery. … The thing with Publishers Clearing House, they won’t call you. It’s against the law for them to ask for up-front fees, advance fees.

Q: How do scammers identify their targets?

A: Anybody can go online and purchase demographics – “This particular geographic area for people over 70 years old that own their homes free and clear, give me a call list for that.” For $1,500, you’ll get maybe 2,500 names, and those lists are sold to these scammers. And then once a victim responds in an affirmative way, they go on a suckers list. … These suckers lists, where the victims have responded in some way, get resold and resold and resold. We generally tell these people, “Once you’ve been called, change your phone number, because they’re going to keep calling you.”

Q: How can residents protect the financial assets of elderly loved ones who may be susceptible to this kind of scam?

A: To really lock down the finances, the elder should agree to create a living trust and not be the trustee of his own trust, relinquish that to somebody he squarely trusts, a successor trustee who now becomes the current trustee. If there just aren’t any good family members to do that, then we think the county should conserve the finances to protect the nest egg.

Q: Do you have any additional words of advice for residents?

A: Prevention is the best medicine. Second best is we have to jump on it right away, otherwise your money’s going to be dissipated. Eventually, the money would have, most likely, gone overseas and we have great difficulty identifying who these overseas scammers are. The FBI, they’re starting to do more, but on a $54,000 loss, they wouldn’t have even touched this case.

To contact the Santa Clara County District Attorney’s Elder Fraud Unit, call (855) 323-5337.

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