Scam Alert: Lanett event aims to protect elderly

Published 10:00 am Friday, August 11, 2023

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

LANETT — A well-attended gathering inside the James A. Hardy Gym on Thursday received some good advice on being prepared for scams. Most of the people there were seniors, the group most vulnerable to fraudsters.

The event was organized by the East Alabama Regional Planning & Development Council, Anniston and had input from the Alabama State Health Insurance Program (SHIP), Alabama’s Long-Term care Ombudsman, the Better Business Bureau, the Bank of America, and the Alabama Securities Commission.

Courtney Winston, a senior vice president for the Bank of America, offered some simple, common sense advice on being prepared for con artists of all types: “See the scam to be free from fraud.”

Email newsletter signup

Keynote speaker Sierra Hall of Alabama Securities Commission said retired people of all levels of education and experience need to be well aware that fraudsters are looking for people in their age group to take advantage of financially. 

“They even came after the former head of the FBI,” she said, referring how William Webster and wife Linda were contacted in 2014 by someone affiliated with a Jamaican lottery scam.

It is kind of stupid to call a former director of the FBI with an obviously illegal phone scam. It led to the arrest and conviction of a man to a six-year prison term.

The brazen caller told Webster that he had won $72 million dollars and that he’d done a background check on him and had discovered he had been a lawyer and a judge. He was right about that but didn’t find out that he’d been head of the CIA and FBI. Not exactly the kind of person you want to scam.

The caller told him he had to send him $50,000 to receive his $72 million prize. Of course, if he sent him the $50,000 the $72 million wouldn’t be coming.

A former head of the FBI and the CIA knows a scam when he hears one, but many seniors aren’t that well versed in crime and often fall victim to a smooth talking person on the phone who’s promising you a lot of money. 

Phone scams are just one element of elder abuse. Melinda Mitchell of the Alabama Long-Term Care Ombudsman program said there are laws to protect nursing home residents. 

“Federal law gives each nursing home resident the right to quality care and quality of life,” she said. “This includes freedom from neglect, abuse, exploitation and misappropriation of property.”

Mitchell went on to say that elder abuse is the deliberate inflections of injury, unreasonable confinement, intimidation or punishment which results in physical harm, pain or mental anguish. 

“This includes verbal, sexual, physical or mental abuse as well as abuse enabled through the use of technology.”

Mitchell added that it is illegal to exploit an elderly person through the use of manipulation, intimidation, threats and coercion. “Misappropriation,” she said, “is the deliberate misplacement, misuse or exploitation of a resident’s belongings or money without the resident’s consent.” She said she was aware of one instance when someone did this to take an estimated $250,000 from an elderly person and another made off with $100,000. Both cases were prosecuted.

Carl Bates of the Alabama chapter of the Better Business Bureau told attendees at the Elder Abuse & Fraud Summit that email scams were a big problem throughout the U.S. He mentioned one situation he was aware of where a retired federal employee living near Birmingham was defrauded of $30,000 in savings by someone who stole their identify off the Internet. 

“The person contacted him, won his confidence and made off with the money,” he said. “Some of these fraudsters can be very convincing. This man took the word of the scammer over the advice of a bank president who urged him not to deal with him.”

Bates said the Better Business Bureau has been in Alabama since 1954 and is committed to helping people and businesses avoid being taken advantage of. He invited people present to check out the Better Business Bureau website at to get advice on contractors you may be considering doing business with. Every licensed contractor in the state is listed there.

“It’s not a good idea to do business with anyone who’s not licensed,” he said. “It’s also a good idea to shred bills that have been paid. There are people who go through garbage dumps looking for information people have thrown away. If they can find information on your identity, they can steal from you. Be careful when someone asks you to transfer money. That’s a way people can take advantage of you.”

There’s also a problem with imposter companies. 

Bates explained that an imposter identifying himself as an Amazon representative can contact you to tell you your account has been suspended. 

“They will tell you to send money to them to get it cleared up. This is not true. Amazon never asks you to respond,” he said.

Other people may call to tell you there’s a problem with your Social Security, Medicare or Medicaid. Bates said if there’s a legitimate problem they will send you a letter with instructions of where to call.

Scammers also take advantage of people posing as Pay Pal, Walmart or Apple Pay. People have also been taken advantage of on Facebook. “Always be careful of text messages from people you don’t know,” Bates said.

People can also get in trouble using WiFi. 

“Some people hang out around hotels to steal information from people who are staying there and using WiFi,”” Bates said.

Winston told the gathering that people in the financial industry have seen all kinds of scams and are prepared to deal with them. 

“Scammers can be creative, quick and sharp,” she said. “Some with bad intentions will knock on your door. Others will send you text messages. I ask you to just remember the saying, “see the scam to be free from fraud.’”

Winston said that studies have shown that up to 85 percent of seniors are being targeted by scammers and at least one out of every ten will be a victim of some kind of scam. Some scammers try to get what they want through scare tactics. 

“They will tell you you haven’t paid on one of your bills and they will cut off your power or have the police come to see you,” she said. “In most cases, you are caught up on your bills. Be aware of the overpayment scam. This is when someone sends you a check for a large amount of money, and they ask you to write them a check for a smaller amount of money. The problem is that check is no good but yours is.”

There’s also the romance scam. People can find out if your are divorced or windowed and living alone. They will contact you to tell you they will be your significant other if your send them a plane ticket. 

“They will play on your loneliness but will never show up,” she said. “An estimated $8 billion was lost to scams last year. It’s a huge thing. If you have given out your information to scammers we may not be able to help you. It’s best to rely on advice from people you know and trust. Remember this call of action: ‘see the scam and be free from fraud.’”

Keynote speaker Sierra Hall of the Alabama Securities Commission advised seniors present to defend themselves from being scammed. She told them of a man in Huntsville who had scammed 85 people out of a combined total of more than $2 million with a plan to grow tomatoes in their backyards. 

“He told them if they give him $9,000 he would plant the tomatoes for them, and they could make between $25,000 and $40,000 selling them.”

“That’s what you call an investment opportunity,” Hall said. “No investment can be guaranteed. In just six months time, that guy got $2.1 million from 85 people. It was not legal for him to approach people with that plan. He had not registered with the Securities Commission. I know all of you here today have worked hard for what you have. You do not deserve for people to take advantage of you. You have to beware of those who will try to do that.”

Hall said there’s a cost of living study that shows how much money is needed to get by on where you live. Most people need every bit of it and can’t afford to lose any of it to scammers.

The study posed the hypothetical case of someone being given $1 million and how long they could live on it. Hawaii and California are the most expensive states. An average person living there could get by on $1 million for ten years. In Alabama, they could get by for 20 years.

“Alabama is No. 9 in the nation in terms of people being vulnerable to fraud,” Hall said. “We are number 15 in identify theft. Tuscaloosa is the number one city for fraud and identity theft.”

Nationally, there were 5.2 million reports of fraud in the U.S. in 2022. The average amount of money lost in a fraud was $650.