TALLAHASSEE – Experts say that scams that target elderly residents of Florida have become more frequent in recent years.
On July 31, Attorney General Pam Bondi filed action against a furniture store in Fort Myers after it allegedly deceived a number of senior citizens into paying far more than the products were worth.
Although this is not the worst of the scams that have taken advantage of seniors, it has shone light upon the fact that elderly individuals are being taken advantage of with increasing frequency.
"I would say that these scams are both more prevalent and more sophisticated in recent years. With the advances in technology, there are many different ways that scammers are targeting people, in particular seniors," Angela Makely, senior manager of public interest and consumer law for the Community Legal Services of Mid-Florida, told the Florida Record. "Often seniors are targeted because they live alone and do not always understand how some technology makes the scammers appear more legitimate."
Makley explained that many scammers will disguise their number and identity to make it appear as though they are legitimate.
"Also, the threats some scammers make frighten seniors, such as 'you will be arrested, we will take your house, or we will file charges against you with the FBI or the CIA,'" Makley said.
Peter M. Vujin, a Miami-based attorney confirmed Makley's assessment of the situation, explaining why scammers so often target the elderly.
"Sadly, it's a growing problem because scammers target vulnerable people, and senior citizens are some of the most vulnerable persons in the State," Vujin told Florida Record.
While elderly individuals may be more prone to being tricked by sophisticated scam artists, the situation is made all the more challenging due to the fact that many are done via phone calls, which are notoriously difficult trace back to the origin of the call.
"The phone call scams are very hard to track down and stop. These scams are often run by a person that uses a fake name, a spoofed number, a fake website and a mail drop. Nothing leads directly back to the scammer. They will also change everything and use a new name, number and mail drop if someone does get close," Makley said.
Though Makley was unable to provide any statistics on the prevalence of the issue, she did explain that she experiences more interactions with the issue than she has in years past.
"I have been a consumer attorney for approximately 17 years, and I used to get an occasional call. Now I receive calls every week from a frightened client," Makley said.
Ashley M. Chambers, director of communications at the Florida Department of Elder Affairs, explained that one of the reasons why we are seeing these types of incidents occur so much in Florida is because of the demographics of the state.
"As I’m sure you know, we have the highest population percentage of elders in the nation, and it is our goal to help them remain healthy, safe and independent," Chambers told the Florida Record.
Maintaining safety can be challenging at times, especially when the organizations focused on protecting the elderly lack investigative or enforcement liberties, such as the Department of Elder Affairs (DOEA), which houses the statewide Elder Abuse Prevention Program but does not have an investigative or enforcement component. While the Department of Children and Families (DCF) houses Adult Protective Services (APS) and manages the statewide Abuse Hotline (1-800-96-ELDER), they only work by taking in complaints with known offenders, who are often far easier to track down than professional scammers, Chamber explained.
"Known offenders are usually a family member, friend, caregiver, or someone else in a position of trust, not an unknown or third-party offender," Chambers said.
In fact, in the last fiscal year, DCF received 41,160 verified reports of abuse, neglect and exploitation of Florida elders.
"More than 9,100 of them, or 22 percent, were reports of scams and financial exploitation – the third-largest category of reported abuse behind self-neglect and inadequate supervision," Chambers said. "Unfortunately, for every case reported, it is estimated that 24 are not because the victim is too afraid or embarrassed to report it."
Chambers explained that DOEA’s Elder Abuse Prevention Program is statewide and that there are projects underway focused on trying to teach individuals how to identify scams, report them and prevent being taken advantage of.
"The overall coordinator, Allison Bryant, is here at HQ. She oversees 11 abuse prevention coordinators who are divided up in planning/service areas across the state and work out of the local Aging and Disability Resource Centers," Chambers said. "They are out in the community conducting education and outreach events to help elders, their families, caregivers, professionals, and the public know how to prevent themselves from becoming a victim, signs to watch out for and how to report it."
DOEA is also partnering with entities like Seniors vs. Crime out of the attorney general’s office and other fraud prevention/consumer awareness units within the state of Florida. While there are certainly many efforts to bring an end to these scams, the DOEA's secretary, Jeffrey Bragg, believes that this issue requires help from everyone if there is going to be an end to the exploitation of the elderly.
“Each of us has a role to play in protecting our seniors, who should be treasured and respected,” Bragg said in a Facebook post. “Far too many of Florida elders are victimized by abuse. Being aware of the signs of abuse is critical, and it is up to each of us to put an end to this shameful practice.”