Scam phone calls and emails continue to be a prevalent issue in Sonoma County and unfortunately those who are most susceptible tend to be the elderly senior citizens of our communities. Seniors endure an exceptionally high rate of fraudulent phone calls and emails that are aimed at taking their money.

“The reality is it’s non-stop, its ongoing,” said Senior Services Supervisor Anna Grant of the Healdsburg Senior Center.

Senior centers around the county report nearly daily to weekly reports of suspected scam phone calls or emails. At the Sebastopol Senior Center for example, people ask about possible scam phone calls or emails “at least once a week” according to program director Katie Davis.

Elderly citizens have a higher risk for falling for scam phone calls and emails, especially those with memory issues or those living alone. Add to that the fact that the number of people aged 65 or older has increased 37 percent since 2010, according to the Council on Aging.

“The number of people that fit into the demographic will contribute to more scams, abuse and more,” said Becky Ennis, Executive Director of the Cloverdale Senior Center.

A 2015 report on elder financial abuse conducted by True Link financial services found that American seniors loose approximately $9.85 billion annually to scam artists that deceive people into giving away their money over the phone or online. The report classifies scam con-artist fraud as one subcategory of criminal fraud, which falls under the larger umbrella of financial abuse.

The report concluded that among all collective cases of elder financial abuse, including identity theft, exploitation or caregiver abuse, seniors across the nation lose about $36.48 billion annually, and that around 36.9 percent of seniors are affected by some form of financial abuse in any given five-year period.

Several commonly reported scams involve the caller pretending to be the IRS or the police demanding money for failing to pay taxes, going to jury duty or any number of other legal situations that the government does not demand payment for, if it actually happened. Other times the caller will pretend to be a grandchild or family member with a convincing plea to pay for their bail or other needs. These grandchild scams will often wait for you to respond with the name of a family member that they can then use in future calls to appear more believable.

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Donata Mikulik

Donata Mikulik

Scam artist tactics have become smarter and more advanced as technology grows in the modern world, according to Donata Mikulik, the Elder Justice Coordinator with the Senior Advocacy Services.

“The issue isn’t going away,” she said, adding that on the phone, scam artists can record vocal responses, often have access to basic information like age and name and can mask the phone number to appear as though it is a local number even though most originate from overseas.

The Senior Advocacy Service is a local non-profit agency located in Petaluma, dedicated to the advocacy and education of senior citizens in Sonoma County in regards to Medicare, long-term care or justice issues. Through their Elder Justice program, they offer several speakers’ bureaus that educate the public on how to recognize and protect against scams.

The education provided by the Elder Justice program is often the first line of defense against scams. “Education is the best prevention,” said Ennis.

Seniors learn not to answer the phone or to send money if they do not recognize the caller, as well as not to speak to prevent voice recordings, and to always be aware of red flags that indicate the caller is not genuine. These include reminders that the police or IRS does not demand money and would not do so over the phone. There is also a large-format handout detailing the “scam pyramid” and providing tips for prevention.

Whenever there is doubt, Executive Director of the Senior Advocacy Services Crista Chelemedos encourages people to “stay connected to your community and to talk to your family” as a way to stay informed 

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