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Elderly people are easy targets for fraudsters. But not always.

Editorial Staff

The elderly have always been easy targets for fraudsters using "I can fix the hole in your roof" or charity, even religious, scams. But the internet is making it easier for fraudsters to be convincing and the internet is making even direct personal contact practically anonymous. Advance fee fraud no longer relies on mail, telex or fax but on e-mail and telephones, tech that the elderly are predisposed to trust. But sometimes, they fight back....

95 year old William Webster and his wife were targeted by an advance fee fraudster who telephoned their home. Right from the outset, the caller made comments that can, in hindsight, be considered preparatory to threats. “I know that you was [sic] a judge, you was a lawyer, you was in the U.S. Navy. I do your background check. You are a big man," he said. And so the prize had to be worthwhile: USD72 million plus a new Mercedes Benz in a lottery.

Jamaican Keniel Thomas, now 29, told the former Judge that he had won the prize in a Jamaican lottery but that, in order to collect, he must pay a fee. Thomas got greedy and asked for USD50,000 up front. If suspicion had cherries on top, it could not be more obvious. Webster and his wife thought it was amusing and ignored Thomas - then the threats started. He left a message on the Websters' answering machine saying "You live at a very lonely place,” he said. “And the moment you arrive, I’m gonna put a shot in your head.”

That was when the Websters contacted the FBI . It wasn't a hard thing to do: Bill Webster, now in his 90s, is a former director of both the CIA and the FBI.

The fact that the authorities were able to track down Thomas is itself an indication that this particular criminal wasn't especially bright (his research didn't throw up the law enforcement connections, which was dumb) but also that he wasn't very tech savvy. It is an extremely simple matter, as many criminals have demonstrated, to make phone calls appear to come from anywhere or, even, nowhere. Tracing calls made over the internet using Voice Over Internet Protocol (known as Voice over IP) is a particularly difficult task.

The Websters were unusual in that they were alert to the risks. Sadly, many elderly people have no idea of what criminals can find out about them, including addresses, with a few keyboard clicks. Therefore criminals are able to be convincing where, in the past, such research would have been time consuming, expensive and sometimes impossible. But, as the FBI noted when commenting on the Websters' case "criminals buy and sell lists of personal information." It was ever thus; when one old person would agree to the fixing of a non-existent hole in his roof, the intelligence network would find out that there was a victim and everything from leaky gutters to fake gas leaks (during which sneak thieves would search for anything of even small value).

These days, the FBI says, when advance fee fraudsters have bled their victims dry, they sometimes move on to cheque-cashing money laundering schemes putting their victims at risk of prosecution. The FBI's John Gardner gave an example: "Hey, I know you can't pay the fees any more. But we have a sponsor that will help pay your fees. So, we’re going to send you a check. We want you to cash it. And we want you to send the cash to another person.’ So, now they’re laundering money."

Instead of sitting pretty on a pile of cash, Thomas was sentenced last month to almost six years in an American jail, having been arrested in 2017. But he and his relatives aren't potless: during the trial, it was learned that the family business had resulted in success amounting to hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The FBI has been conducting a special campaign against those who target the elderly, pointing out that those of advanced years don't have time to recover the money and /or rebuilt their lives (the FBI didn't say "before they die" but that's what it meant). According to the FBI "Coordinated law enforcement actions in the past year resulted in criminal cases against more than 260 defendants who victimised more than 2 million Americans, most of them elderly. Losses are estimated to have exceeded more than USD700 million."