Chief of police: Beware of criminals targeting the elderly

Posted 8/4/21

SILER CITY — It’s been a bad year for the community’s oldest residents.

No single demographic has been more heavily impacted by the pandemic than elderly Americans. According to data from …

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Chief of police: Beware of criminals targeting the elderly

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Posted

SILER CITY — It’s been a bad year for the community’s oldest residents.

No single demographic has been more heavily impacted by the pandemic than elderly Americans. According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 80% of all COVID-19 deaths are of people aged 65 and older. Those 50 and older account for about 95% of all deaths in the U.S., according to AARP.

But another, quieter crisis has wreaked havoc on the nation’s senior citizens since COVID-19 changed the world — an insurgence of scamming operations.

“We have definitely seen an increase this year, especially since COVID,” Siler City Police Chief Mike Wagner told the News + Record. “These types of scams have become more prevalent, because people have been home and they’re not able to do what they normally do, and then these deals come along that seem too good to be true. Well, they really are too good to be true.”

A rise in fraudulent activity targeting Siler City residents is consistent with national and state trends. A report from the Federal Trade Commission released earlier this year revealed staggering figures. Consumers reported losing more than $3.3 billion to different scams in 2020 compared to $1.8 billion in 2019. That represents an 83% increase in stolen money year-over-year.

In North Carolina — which ranks 17th in the country for most money lost to fraud per 100,000 people ­— more than $72 million was reported stolen in 2020, according to the FTC. Criminals employed a variety telephone and online scams.

Wagner could not compile exact figures for Siler City, he said, but calls to his department reporting senior-targeting scams have distinctly escalated since the pandemic’s start, and tens of thousands of dollars, if not more, have been stolen from town residents.

“And that’s just what we know about,” he said. “And we need some perspective. We’ve had recent cases of about $11,000 or $5,000. To a senior on limited income, that’s like $100,000 for someone else. It’s critical. It’s their last hope. And oftentimes, it’s just the start. These people gain access to your bank account and when you get that monthly check from Social Security or disability, they know right when to hit it and it’s gone before you even see it.”

A perfect storm

Senior citizens make up a growing slice of Siler City’s population. According to March analysis by the N.C. Dept. of Commerce’s Main Street & Rural Planning Center, Siler City’s 55- to 84-year-old population constitutes a widening proportion of the town’s residents.

Last year’s census data may reveal a different picture when it’s released in coming weeks, but circumstances aren’t ripe for an infusion of youth. A stagnant job market and strapped real estate inventory make life difficult for young people still establishing their careers and raising families.

That makes Siler City an ideal target for greedy scammers.

“There’s a different level of trust between the generations,” Wagner said. “Most times those the people, the seniors, they did business on a handshake and with some type of informal commitment. And they expect the same. And so the people that we talk about, the predators, they understand the human nature of that generation and they prey on that.”

The elderly are not less intelligent than younger generations, he emphasized. But they may be unaccustomed to modern-day ploys. Even a Federal Bureau of Investigations report acknowledges “seniors are often targeted because they tend to be trusting and polite.”

And seniors are more likely to have assets worth stealing.

“They also usually have financial savings, own a home and have good credit,” the FBI report says, “all of which make them attractive to scammers.”

Still, the elderly are often embarrassed after realizing they were scammed, Wagner said, and they’re reluctant to report what happened. He would implore them to dispel with that attitude, though — it only promotes avoidable victimization.

“Don’t get it twisted, these are professionals,” Wagner said. “They’re very crafty and they’re very mobile, so don’t be embarrassed.”

Criminals contrive new scams frequently; it’s impossible to stay abreast of every scam one might encounter. The best way to stay safe, then, is to involve the police early.

“We just want to tell all of our community, call us first,” Wagner said. “If you have one ounce of hesitation, or one ounce of something when that internal ticker says, ‘This is not right,’ call us, because we will help you vet whoever’s calling you.”

The Siler City Police Department’s non-emergency phone number is 919-742-5626. But Wagner encourages residents to call 911 if they prefer. Potential scams are that serious.

“Whatever they feel comfortable with they should do, I really mean that,” Wagner said. “Because in a matter of moments, if you subject yourself to giving any information, most times within an hour or less you can be penniless. It happens that quick.”

Reporter D. Lars Dolder can be reached at dldolder@chathamnr.com and on Twitter @dldolder.

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