Investigator Chris Wilson, who investigates financial crimes and fraud at Bartow County Sheriff's Office, agrees the elderly are common targets of fraud attempts, especially letter scams. He specifically remembers a victim in her early 80s who said money was tight and she was trying to assist her children. She cashed a fake check and lost about $5,000.
"She said she went to church, went up to the altar and prayed that things would turn around and everything would start looking better financially," Wilson said. "Within a few days, she received one of these bogus letters with a check and she thought it was a godsend."
It is a typical scenario with letter scams, which often include a large check with instructions to cash it and wire a portion of the money back to the sender. A common variation is sweepstakes and lottery scams -- the victim receives a letter stating he or she won money and is to send a portion back to cover taxes, administration or shipping fees -- but there are many variations of letter scams.
"Basically all they want you do is respond at which time they'll send you a check for an undisclosed amount -- usually $3,000 to $5,000 -- and they want you to keep a little bit and send the rest back, stating it's some kind of processing fee and then as soon as you cash the check and send the money off, your bank notifies you it's a bogus or counterfeit check. That happens quite a bit," Wilson said, adding BCSO receives 100 to 150 reports of such incidents per year in which individual victims are taken for between $1,000 to $5,000.
"But that's just the ones that are reported. I get a lot of phone calls from people asking questions about them and usually we just tell them to shred it or if the people are trying to notify them, tell them it's been turned over to the authorities and usually they don't hear anything else from them," Wilson said. "We've tried over the last few years to put out some awareness to tell people when they get these things, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is."
The same scenario often happens when sellers offer items over the Internet. "Buyers" respond to the ads, often via e-mail, and send a check written for more than the sale price.
"There again it's just like the checks that come in the mail, is cashed and the money's been sent, the bank notifies the patron the check was bogus and that they're responsible for the amount," Wilson said. "Things that I've been seeing is big items like vehicles, things that would normally be picked up or people would want to see prior to ordering them. A lot of people are not going to spend $4,000, $5,000 or even more on a vehicle without even looking at it, possibly even test driving it and listening to it run, and seeing the actual condition of it other than what a picture on a computer is showing them."
Broadly known as advanced fee scams, the FBI says to know who you are dealing with -- visit the business location, check with the Better Business Bureau, or consult with your bank, an attorney or the police.
"A lot of it is good common sense. If it's just something outrageous, then it probably is. All of it has to be basically with bogus checks, 99 percent of it, and if you respond or take interest, then that's usually when you start receiving these kind of checks," Wilson said. "The information on them is usually good and they're usually legitimate-type checks. It's just not the actual check that belongs to a company or a person. They're just using real checks to generate information on them that is legitimate, whether it be a business or a person, under identity theft, or they're using a company's logos and business information."
Be very wary when correspondence received in the mail directs you to send money to the sender's associate in another city.
"Mostly what we're seeing is this money is being picked up out of country, usually in Jamaica, Liberia, Nigeria, China, different countries," Wilson said. "The scams are being run out of country ... and usually the ones that get hurt the most are the elderly because most of the elderly people -- and I'm talking 70 and above -- they were raised in a time of trust, and unfortunately with today's crimes, it works off trust."
For more information on common scams targeting seniors, visit fbi.gov/scams-safety/fraud/seniors.