With scams targeting senior citizens on the rise, members of the North Carolina Senior Consumer Fraud Task Force representing the offices of North Carolina Secretary of State, North Carolina Insurance Commission, and State Attorney General, along with the US Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of North Carolina, United Way of North Carolina, and AARP North Carolina, raised awareness of such fraud at a press conference Wednesday at the NC Secretary of State’s office.

The press conference was held before World Elder Abuse Awareness Day on June 15, and the statistics are staggering.

First Assistant US Attorney of the Eastern District of NC Dan Bubar told the audience that according to the National Council on Aging, approximately 1 in 10 seniors has been a victim of elder fraud, and the vast majority of cases against seniors and the fraud committed against them go unreported.

“In 2022, the FBI put out a report that indicates there were over 88,000 victims nationwide with a total of $3.1 billion of loss,” he said. “That was an 84% increase from 2021, so again, these are the old statistics, but the numbers continue to increase. We’re seeing the average victim in these cases lose almost $40,000, and many lose much more, up to $100,000. In 2023, across the country, federal prosecutors brought both criminal and civil cases against over 700 defendants who collectively stole more than $1.5 billion, affecting 2.4 million elderly across the country.”

Bubar said that in addition to filing a complaint with local and state authorities, people can also file one online with the FBI on the Internet Crime Complaint Center website, ic3.gov

“Last year alone, our office received nearly 500 complaints about elder fraud and scams,” said Jasmine McGee, deputy attorney general and director of the consumer protection division at the attorney general’s office. “For the five worst scams, we received 278 complaints, and of these, almost half of those lost money. The total loss by these victims was over $7 million, with an average loss of almost $55,000.”

McGee said in 2023, the Federal Trade Commission reported that the average scam loss was $500 a person. Also, most scams originate overseas, and once the money has been sent, it is almost impossible to recover. She said that last year, the attorney general’s office was able to recover or save victims from losing over $47,000 as a result of predatory practices like these.

She also listed some popular scams, including:

  • Sweetheart scams – Someone, most likely overseas, reaches out to the person on Facebook or LinkedIn, strikes up a friendship, and then asks for money for a financial crisis or hardship they have.
  • Sweepstakes scams – The person receives a mailing saying they won the lottery, and later, by e-mail, phone, or text, the scammer says they need to prepay their tax liability on the winnings just to claim their prize.
  • Impostor scams – The scammer pretends to be a government official or someone that the person would trust and listen to. They try to intimidate them and demand money, or face arrest.
  • Tech support scams: A pop-up on the person’s computer tells them something is wrong. The link appears to be from Microsoft or Apple and directs them to click on a link or call a number. Once they do, the scammer gains access to their computer, where they can still steal money from bank accounts, install malware, and obtain other personal information
  • Grandparents scams – Scammers try to pretend to be the person’s grandchild, saying they are in trouble and asking for money. Always hang up and call a number that you know is theirs or ask another relative to make sure.

McGee and others stressed that scammers are now using AI to replicate someone’s voice, so people need to pay extra attention if something doesn’t feel quite right.

To file a complaint with the consumer protection division at the attorney general’s office, you can call 877-5-NOSCAM or visit their website, ncdoj.gov/complaint.

As he mentioned at last week’s Council of State meeting, North Carolina Insurance Commissioner Mike Causey said there has been a spike in insurance fraud since the COVID-19 pandemic.

NC Insurance Commissioner Mike Causey, June 12, 2024. Photo by Theresa Opeka, Carolina Journal.

“There’s a lot of pressure to constantly raise the premiums you’re paying on insurance and one of the drivers is fraud,” he said. “We made a record number of arrests at the Department of Insurance in 2023, over 505 for fraud. We prosecuted and found guilty over half of those last year the other half are pending.”

Causey said that for every dollar paid on auto or homeowners insurance, 20 cents is going to cover fraud.

He said one of the most popular ways criminals target seniors is through online financial scams. They look for those with annuities or savings accounts, promising them bigger returns if they roll their money over into the scammers’ accounts. Many lose their life savings and are too embarrassed to tell anyone, especially their children.

Another popular scam is someone offering to do home repairs. Causey told Carolina Journal after the press conference that he knew of a retired couple that lost over $185,000, their life savings, when they contracted with a well-respected community member who also happened to be an elected official. One mistake Causey said they made was paying a large sum of money, $100,000, up front. Never give a large amount up front, because the contractor can take off without doing any work. Sadly, the couple was scammed a second time by another contractor promising to fix what the first didn’t finish.

He reminds everyone to always get estimates from three different contractors, make sure they are properly licensed and insured, and get references.

“You don’t ever want to trust the pickup truck pulling into your driveway with the Florida or some other state license plate and always ask to see their driver’s license,” he said.

Causey also warned that scammers will come into any area after a storm hits and promise to get someone a new roof for free or pay a discount on leftover materials they have.  It’s a warning to definitely heed now that hurricane season has begun. 

In addition to those scams, the Insurance Commission also investigates Medicare Fraud. To file a complaint, you can visit their website.

NC Secretary of State Elaine Marshall also noted that people need to look out for charity scams, especially as the state heads into what is predicted to be a very active hurricane season.

NC Secretary of State Elaine Marshall, June 12, 2024. Photo by Theresa Opeka, Carolina Journal.

“We need North Carolinians to keep an eye out for fake charity scams in the wake of these natural disasters,” Marshall said. “I want everyone who’s able to give, to give generously, but do your research upfront and make sure your generosity is going to do the most good for those in need. If you suspect you’ve come across a fake charity, you can call our charitable solicitations hotline at 888-830-4989 or visit us at sosnc.gov.”

A “virtual scam jam,” a video created by NC AARP on behalf of the task force, has been released to help seniors avoid scams.

In addition to the video, people who suspect a scam or fraudulent activity can now call 211 to find help on who to call.

“You will speak with the community resource specialist in our office that will help to direct you to the appropriate place,” said Brittany Pruitt Fletcher, president and CEO of United Way of North Carolina. “NC 211 is free, confidential and available in all 100 counties across North Carolina, and it’s also available in multiple languages. We also have over 13,000 resources in our database related to all types of information that you may need.”