This article is part of State of Health, a series about how Michigan communities are rising to address health challenges. It is made possible with funding from the Michigan Health Endowment Fund.
According to the U.S. Department of Justice, elder scams defrauded
more than 92,000 Americans aged 60 or older of $1.7 billion in 2021 — a 74% increase over losses reported in 2020. Michigan had the 16th most victims – 2,410 – in the country, and the 19th highest losses at $31.8 million. However, Michigan organizations that provide health care and other services for older adults are working to reduce the impact of scams through education and legislative help.
Romance scams that bank on older adults' loneliness are among the most commonly reported. Telemarketing schemes also find success with older adults who answer the phone rather than screen incoming calls. Because scammers can make calls appear to come from the victim's area, older adults are even more likely to answer them.
Other scammers pretend to be utility companies threatening shut-offs, charities in the wake of natural disasters, or Medicare representatives who demand personal information. Reverse mortgage scams have led to older adults being evicted from their homes while time-share buy-outs have wiped out life savings. Online shopping scams also target older adults who are less internet-savvy. In 2021, the FBI received more than 13,000 complaints
of fraudulent products or non-delivery of products, making this the second-most reported scam among older adults. In 2022, the FBI's Internet Crime Report Center received 88,262 complaints of scams from Americans over 60. The average loss per victim was $35,101; the total loss was $3.1 billion.
Sarah Milanowski, social worker and marketing and communications specialist with LifeCircles PACE
, reports that part of her work is educating the older adults in LifeCircles' care on how to avoid being scammed — and also helping them to report scams and recover losses after the fact. She shares that the "grandchild" scam is on the rise – as experienced by one Muskegon County couple, Elaine and Kenneth Duylea.
Elaine got a call from a person claiming to be a police officer indicating that the Duyleas' grandchild had been arrested. Next, a "lawyer" got on the line explaining that $9,000 was needed to keep the grandchild out of jail. Elaine convinced Kenneth to go to the bank and get the money. Thankfully, after withdrawing the funds, it dawned on Kenneth that the situation might be a scam. He called his grandchild, discovered his hunch was correct, and then called the police. A sting operation apprehended the scammers when they came to the Duyleas' house to get their money.
"With our task force in Muskegon County, we're fortunate to have a couple of detectives that work just on this type of crime because of our senior millage," Milanowski says. "We got a call while the grandchild scam was in progress. When they came to collect the money, they grabbed them. They were part of a ring from Florida."
Sarah Milanowski accompanies a LifeCircles PACE participant.
However, most elder scams don't share this happy ending.
"They went on the news
to share their story, which is huge because most people get embarrassed and they don't want to talk about it or report it," Milanowski says. "Elder scams are severely underreported."
Michigan organizations and collaboration battling elder scams
Chris Burnaw serves as the SafeSeniors
team coordinator for the nonprofit AgeWell Services
, which provides a wide range of services to older adults living in Muskegon, Oceana, and Ottawa counties. Burnaw's team collaborates with LifeCircles and 13 other area partners, including Legal Aid of West Michigan
, to protect older adults from scams, help them report scams, investigate the scams, and recover lost funds.
"The number of older adults who are abused either financially or physically is one in 10. And when you look at financial exploitation, only one in 44 of those cases are reported because of embarrassment or shame — or they don't know what to do," Burnaw says. "That's where our outreach comes in. I do presentations to older adults on what to watch for, what to do, and how to report. We've seen numbers on reporting rise in the area since we've started doing that."
Another organization protecting elders from scams, the Crime Victims Legal Assistance Project
(CVLAP), employs 25 lawyers who practice throughout the state with Legal Services of Eastern Michigan
, Legal Services of Northern Michigan
, Legal Aid of Western Michigan
, and Legal Services of South Central Michigan
. They can often help victims recover their losses.
"About half of the 25 lawyers work exclusively with older and vulnerable adults who have had some type of incident of abuse, neglect, or exploitation — many of those clients have, in fact, been scammed and are vulnerable to being scammed again," says Emily Miller, CVLAP managing attorney. "In addition to case-by-case or client-by-client response, some of them serve on the Attorney General's Elder Abuse Task Force
, which is doing good work around these issues on a systemic level."
In addition to handling individual cases, these lawyers also do extensive community outreach at senior centers, churches, and other community organizations to educate older adults and their loved ones about scams. During those community outreach events, older adults in the audience often come forward to ask for help because they have been scammed.
"Being scammed has a wide range of consequences, from being out a couple hundred dollars to finding yourself being evicted from the home that you have owned for over 50 years and having your life savings drained," Miller says. "The economic fallout for folks who are victimized by scams is all over the place depending on how long the scam went on before it was interrupted, how much the scammer was able to get their hands on, and whether the money is recoverable."
To protect older loved ones, check in with them often
Miller shares that not all scammers are anonymous strangers. Many older adults fall victim to people they know and trust— a neighbor, a caregiver, a child, or even a pastor.
"In addition to the loss of money or assets, there is also a heavy emotional toll on people who experience exploitation, particularly if it is perpetrated by someone that they love and trusted, or the only person in their life that they thought they could count on to help them," Miller says. "The shame that people feel after being tricked is pretty universal — regardless of age — and that can impact how, when, or if they disclose what is happening."
While more scammers target older adults, people of all ages fall victim to scams. However, people tend to question the mental capacity of an older adult victim, which can make victims even more hesitant to report the crime, especially if perceived incompetence puts them at risk for losing independence.
"I'm 42 and I've been scammed. I fell for it. And it is literally my job to be on the lookout for this stuff," Miller says. "There is no shame in telling someone you think you're being scammed. Saying something early can really make a difference. People victim-blame by questioning the mental capacity of the older adult, which is something we wouldn't do to younger adults. And that can start the unfair process of questioning whether the older adult is capable of handling other important aspects of their lives, sometimes leading to restrictions on their ability to make decisions for themselves through inappropriate guardianships."
The first step for anyone who has been scammed is filing a police report. To prevent older loved ones from being scammed, Miller stresses the importance of checking in on them frequently. Based on the type and size of the scam, intervention can range from canceling a credit card to finding a lawyer to file suit and get the house back.
"We are all going to experience lapses in judgment at times or legitimately be fooled by clever scammers," Miller says. "The important thing is destigmatizing this occurrence so that we can all talk about it freely with less shame because the sooner the exploitation comes to light, the less damage it can do to someone's life."
For more information on protecting older adults from scammers, visit the Elder Abuse Task Force website. If a scam is suspected, call (855) 444-3911.
Estelle Slootmaker is a working writer focusing on journalism, book editing, communications, poetry, and children's books. You can contact her at [email protected] or www.constellations.biz.
Emily Miller photos by Doug Coombe. Sarah Milanowski photos by Pat ApPaul. Chris Burnaw photo courtesy of Chris Burnaw.