When Sandra answered her phone a few years ago, the 86-year-old California woman thought it was her granddaughter. The young, panicked girl kept calling her grandma as she unfurled a breathless, urgent tale about an accident in someone else’s borrowed car and police finding drugs hidden underneath her seat. The girl needed money fast to make things right.
So Sandra went to her bank, brushed off probing questions like she was told to do, and arranged to transfer the funds—$78,600.
More than 88,000 people over age 60 collectively lost $3.1 billion last year in scams targeting the elderly, according to the Internet Crime Complaint Center’s (IC3) 2022 Elder Fraud Report. Common schemes include cold calls offering tech support, fake investment opportunities, and romance and confidence scams like the one Sandra fell for. More than 60 grandparent scams—where criminals impersonate a panicked loved one—accounted for $3.8 million in losses in 2022, according to the IC3 report. The actual number is likely far higher, investigators say, because many elder fraud scams go unreported.
“A lot of victims have told us that they’re ashamed to tell other people,” said Kevin Mokhtari, an assistant U.S. attorney in San Diego who helped establish an Elder Justice Task Force to address the growing problem. “They felt embarrassed by it. They see it as a reflection of maybe a decline in their mental faculties.”
“But there’s nothing to be ashamed of,” Mokhtari added. “The people who do this are exceptionally good at what they do. The reason that it works is that it preys upon the best of people and uses that against them.”
Losses from elder fraud schemes increased 84% from 2021 to 2022, according to the elder fraud report. The troubling trend has been the genesis for collaborations like the Elder Justice Task Force in California, a state that led the nation last year with 11,517 victims, according to IC3.
The task force in San Diego—prosecutors, police officers, crime analysts, and FBI special agents—grew out of frustration that nobody had quantified how bad the problem was. The Department of Justice launched 10 such task forces in 2016 under its Elder Justice Initiative. The group in San Diego came together in 2020 with a data-driven approach—analyze cases across all the participating agencies and look for patterns of financial crimes against older people. What they saw wasn’t a rash of disparate crimes but something much more akin to organized crime.
“The task force made it possible to tie these cases together, thread by thread,” said U.S. Attorney Randy Grossman, of the Southern District of California. “We were able to identify 1,700 victims in one year in San Diego County, with a loss of over $49 million. And sadly, we know that number is significantly underreported. But at least we have a number that validates the need for resources to fight back on behalf of our elder community.”
Special Agent Alex Murray said after the San Diego County District Attorney’s Office—a member of the task force—identified the scam that swindled Sandra and so many other victims. Then agents and intelligence analysts in the FBI’s San Diego Field Office built out the investigation, which showed links to co-conspirators as far away as Florida.
“It doesn’t take long when you pull on that string with the initial victim loss, you’re going to find additional victims,” Murray said. “You’re going to start finding the organization behind it.”
Among the findings in the 2022 Elder Fraud Report by the FBI's Internet Crime Complaint Center, or IC3:
In 2022, total losses reported to the IC3 by elderly victims increased 84% from 2021. Tech and customer support schemes continued to be the most common type of fraud reported, with 17,800 complaints filed by victims over 60.
Monetary losses due to investment fraud reported by victims over 60 increased over 300%, more than any other kind of fraud.
In spring 2022, two members of the enterprise that targeted Sandra pleaded guilty in federal court for their roles in swindling about $2 million from more than 70 victims across the country, including 10 in San Diego County who lost over $300,000. According to court documents, one subject ran a network of individuals who conducted cash pick-ups and received wire transfers from victims who believed they were sending money to help a grandchild or other close relative or friend. Six co-conspirators have also pleaded guilty. The pair were sentenced last August to two and nine years, respectively, in prison.
Special Agent Murray said the conspiracy followed a well-trod model for scammers targeting older Americans, particularly grandparents.
“The general theme is ‘I’m in jail. I need to get out. Can you send money for bail or bond? And here’s my attorney.’ Then someone gets on the phone and figuratively puts their arm around the grandparents,” Murray said. “They say this is all going to be OK. And they really try and focus on restricting the grandparent from saying anything to anybody else.”
That’s what happened to Sandra.
“The people are very, very polished about what they do, and it seems like they are telling the truth,” Sandra said. “They don't give you a whole lot of information, just enough to get you pulled in. And once you feel confident about talking with them, then on and on they go until the money goes up.”
Members of the task force said awareness is the key to stopping this burgeoning crime. Older people—and their families and caregivers—need to understand that even the most savvy senior is not immune to the charms of some of these scams, which are unusually persistent and persuasive.
“The first thing we urge folks to do is slow down and not react,” said Stacey Moy, special agent in charge of FBI San Diego. “It’s important to remain calm. And don't immediately pay, because once those funds go, there may be no way to recover them.”
“It doesn’t take long when you pull on that string with the initial victim loss, you’re going to find additional victims.”
Alex Murray, special agent, FBI San Diego