Local woman speaks out about scam that took her mom’s life savings

Experts say seniors more at risk for phone and email scams

By: Tiffany Esshaki | C&G Newspapers | Published May 15, 2019

 Cindy Roback remembers her late mother, Barbara Young, at her former home in Warren. Roback’s mother was victimized by phone scammers before she passed away, bilking her out of her life savings.

Cindy Roback remembers her late mother, Barbara Young, at her former home in Warren. Roback’s mother was victimized by phone scammers before she passed away, bilking her out of her life savings.

Photo by Donna Agusti

METRO DETROIT — Throughout her life, Warren resident Barbara Young was a saver. She was determined to have enough money to hire help and live out her days in her own home, and Young’s children estimate that she saved somewhere around $100,000.

But when she passed away a few years ago, that savings was gone.

Phone and email scams have become an all-too-common consequence of living in a high-tech world. It’s no secret that criminals looking to steal cash or information disproportionately target older people. Since the scheme seems to evolve every few weeks — an IRS debt, a bench warrant, a grandchild stranded abroad — it can be hard to decipher a genuine inquiry from fraud.

That’s what happened to Young, according to her daughter Cindy Roback, also of Warren. She said that as she packed up her mother’s belongings after a long battle with Alzheimer’s disease, there was evidence of the racket everywhere she looked: tucked in books, hidden in the stereo, stashed in dresser drawers.

“Around the time Mom started to get dementia, she started getting these phone calls. Us kids didn’t know about it at first, and I’m not sure if my dad knew about them at the time,” Roback explained. “But I came in one day and she was sitting at the table, writing down the name of everybody in the family. I asked what she was doing, and she told me she was going to win a sweepstakes, and she was writing down how much the kids and grandkids would get.”

Roback told Young that the sweepstakes phone calls were just a scam, bilking victims out of thousands in exchange for the chance to collect a big windfall, but Young’s mental state prevented her from heeding that warning. She believed she would win, and she kept handing over the cash. It wasn’t until Roback stepped in and had her mother’s phone number changed to a private, unlisted number that the calls stopped. Roback’s brother gave up his apartment to move in with their mother and help pay the bills for the rest of her days.

“She was so excited. She just wanted a better life for her kids and grandkids, and they preyed on that,” Roback said. “We told her this wasn’t the way to go about doing it, but she didn’t listen.”

Despite the widespread awareness of phone scams across the United States, according to the AARP, the number of fraud attempts via phone and email continues to skyrocket. In 2017, just under 4% of calls to cellphones were considered fraudulent. In 2018, that jumped to nearly 30%. In 2019, telecommunications experts expect nearly 45% of all calls to cellphones to be scams. Fraud calls on landlines are decreasing, but analysts say it’s hard to tell whether that’s from fewer calls or fewer people using landlines.

Law enforcement agencies at every level have been trying to stay ahead of the crooks, but then the game changes. It’s even tougher, since victims often can’t press charges against suspects — if suspects can even be identified — since they’re typically from regions outside the country and well out of jurisdiction.

But that certainly doesn’t deter law enforcement officials from trying.

“It’s unacceptable for bad actors to exploit our love and concern for our family members for criminal purposes,” Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel said in a press release following her most recent prosecution of an alleged “grandparent scam.”

“My office is committed to ensuring that our state residents are protected from these types of despicable acts and that Michiganders are not being taken advantage of.”

But it takes a village to protect families. Police, family members and companions can only do so much to make sure their older loved ones aren’t ripped off. Community services are doing their part to help seniors recognize potential scams.

Renee Cortright, the executive director of the Older Persons’ Commission in Rochester, said her organization works closely with police and other agencies to spread the word in a number of different ways, targeting both low-tech and digitally savvy seniors.

“When we find out about a new scam, especially those affecting the senior population, we note it in the weekly e-blast,” she said. “At least once or twice a year, we have presentations in regard to scams, and we always have informational flyers in our senior resource hallway.”

Whether or not the efforts have been impactful is hard to say. Cortright said that so many seniors who have been taken feel embarrassed, and they might not disclose the crime to anyone.

But the older people walking the halls of their local senior center aren’t the ones most likely to fall victim to a phone or email scam anyway, Cortright said.

“Those who are homebound, not able to get out and about or aren’t computer literate, they’re the ones that are more apt to be scammed,” she explained. “When people socialize, you hear about these things and you learn. If you’re homebound, you might not realize when someone calls you on the phone they might not be who they say they are. And if you’re at home and you’re lonely, having that conversation on the phone with whomever it may be is a bright spot in the day, even if that someone means you harm.”


How to spot a scam

• Double check. Attempt to reach the loved one and/or confirm their status or whereabouts with other family members.

• Spot the red flags. If the caller is frantic on the phone and demands that funds be wire transferred, sent in cash or via gift cards — it’s probably fraud. Additionally, the caller may have just enough personal information to persuade and will likely instruct you not to tell anyone.

• Slow down. Although you will be pressured to do so, do not act right away. During the call, do not assist scammers in knowing the identity of your loved one by guessing their name. Force them to tell you who they are.

• Never provide personal identifying information to an incoming caller. Never provide your bank account, credit card information or Social Security number to someone who calls you. Hang up and call the company or individual back on a phone number you know to be correct to verify.

Source: Office of Attorney General Dana Nessel