Post Office: Scammers Targeting Elderly By Mail

Financial scams are on the rise. Last year, Americans filed more than 1.5 million fraud complaints. Officials at the U.S. Postal Inspection Service say the elderly are particularly vulnerable and the agency has made combating fraud one of its top priorities. Guest host Allison Keyes speaks with Pete Rendina of the U.S. Postal Inspection Service.

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ALLISON KEYES, HOST:

And now to matters of personal finance. You may have been hearing more about people being bilked in financial scams lately. According to the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College, Americans submitted more than 1.5 million complaints about fraud to federal officials in the year 2011 alone. That's up 62 percent in just three years, and law enforcement officials worry that number is going to grow as baby boomers get older, because they're juicy targets for scam artists hoping to prey on the combination of substantial savings, home equity and the disabilities that become common with advanced age.

Now, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service is making fighting fraud one of its highest priorities. Here to tell us more about this is Pete Rendina. He's with the U.S. Postal Inspection Service right here in D.C.

Welcome to the program.

PETE RENDINA: Thank you. Excited to be here.

KEYES: I can see why scam artists would target seniors. I mean, people are getting lump sum payments when they're moved from traditional pensions, but I think most people think more of home repair scams or telemarketing. Why is this a concern for the Postal Service?

RENDINA: The Postal Service doesn't want to be an unknowing accomplice to fraudsters that are out there trying to bilk millions of our senior American consumers across the country, so postal inspectors feel that it's very important to prevent the crime before it happens. We always say that it's easier to prevent a crime than it is to solve one.

KEYES: Some of the most prevalent types of fraud your agency has been seeing are lottery scams. Are they not? Tell us a little bit about how those work.

RENDINA: Sure. We see various different types of scams that either come over the phone, internet, eventually going through the mail in furtherance of that crime. Well, one thing that we've noticed that, in 2009, there were 9,500 complaints that came in to our system letting us know that there were foreign lottery scams out there. And then in 2010...

KEYES: You said foreign fraud lottery scams?

RENDINA: Yes. Foreign lottery scams.

KEYES: OK.

RENDINA: And, basically, in 2010, we saw that number double up to 17,700. Because we saw that increase, we felt that it was very important to get our message out there about prevention. But first and foremost, it's illegal for Americans to play foreign lotteries.

KEYES: These are some of the emails we've seen from different countries. Hey, send us this money because you've won a million dollars or something like that. Right?

RENDINA: Exactly. A lot of Americans see the emails, but you also receive those phone calls and, sometimes, you do receive solicitations via the mail.

KEYES: How would people know, once they see these letters, that it's not a real thing? I mean, I could see my grandma reading a letter that says, you know - I mean, not Publishers Clearinghouse, obviously - but saying, you've won $2 million and now you've got to pay $2,000 to get it.

RENDINA: And myself, I'm 40 years old and I have parents that are in their 70s and I'm looking for various signs of frauds that could happen to my parents. But one of the things that you can do - looking at the mailing itself, you'll see that it's coming from a foreign country. The other thing that you'll see are various states mentioned in the solicitation letter and then the check itself - the one that I'm holding in my hand right now - the return address is a YMCA in Illinois. So why is the YMCA in Illinois paying out a lottery winning from Spain? So you have various things that don't match up with the mailing itself.

KEYES: Let's take a listen to the clip that you brought with you of someone allegedly being scammed on the telephone.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I told you, ma'am, they (bleep) up. I don't want to use foul language, but you're going to have to use it, dear, and I don't do that because I'm a Christian man.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: I've lost $15,000.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: No, you didn't.

KEYES: Pete, what was going on there?

RENDINA: What the scammers do - they'll start out with a soft sell. They'll tell you you won a prize and, in order to get that large sum prize, like $50,000 or a million dollars, you're going to have to pay some taxes, some processing fees. And they'll give you a check for - let's say $2,395 - and they'll tell you you need to cash that check at your bank and, from there, we would need you to send $2,000 of that for the processing fees and you can keep the remainder of $395.

If the person doesn't comply with the request, they'll try some other things. They'll do voice over internet spoofing. Basically, when they make that phone call the first time, they'll use that technology to make it sound like it's coming from a government agency, such as the IRS or the FTC or Department of Justice, DOJ.

And they're trying to get the elderly to feel that this is official and that they need to comply. Now, if the elderly do not comply and they're smart enough to realize - you know what? This is a scam. They'll continue with the phone calls and they'll start sounding like the one we just heard. It becomes very threatening and they try to scare these individuals.

KEYES: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about the growing number of financial scams that target older Americans. With me is Pete Rendina from the U.S. Postal Inspection Service.

So it sounds like one of the first things people should worry about is people asking them to pay money for a check that they've allegedly gotten. Right?

RENDINA: Exactly. You shouldn't have to pay money up front in order to get your winnings, but I also want to stress - what we're talking about here today, specifically, is the foreign lottery fraud scams and it is illegal for Americans to play foreign lotteries. So, if you get something that says you won a foreign lottery, then you know it's a scam.

KEYES: Especially if you didn't send something to the said foreign lottery. You told us that you know someone that this happened to personally. Tell us a little bit about that.

RENDINA: Sure. I received a phone call from a friend of mine and her parents live with her and, unfortunately, her mother just passed this past December. But her father is continuing to receive various solicitations via the mail. He's receiving phone calls. He's also gotten some things over the Internet, even though his daughter basically takes care of the email for him.

In any case, what he showed me - and we alluded to this a little earlier in our conversation. It was a standard mail piece. It looks like business mail.

KEYES: I should note that he's sitting in the studio holding up an envelope that looks like something that would just show up in your mailbox along with your other bills.

RENDINA: Yeah. It looks harmless, but if you look closely at the postage, you'll see that it is coming from Canada and then, when you open up the actual envelope, there is a solicitation letter, just stating that there is a final notification of your winnings. And they tell you that they've tried contacting you every way possible. This is the last chance that they can possibly get you your winnings. And it says here that he won $50,000 and, in order to get that $50,000, he's going to have to pay taxes and processing fees and that he needs to cash that check at his bank and send a portion of that money to the, quote, unquote, "tax agent" in Valencia, Spain.

KEYES: So all of these are red flags that people should look out for. Tell me briefly a couple of other things that people should watch out for with things they get both in the mail and over the phone.

RENDINA: First thing I'll talk to the caregivers about would be to help your elderly friends or family by telling them, hey, let me balance your checkbook this month. That way, you can get to take a look at their check register. See if they're paying anything out to foreign countries. If they have an unusual amount of money going to unknown places, that can start a conversation with your loved one.

The other thing is their physical health. They're going to realize that this may be a scam. They may be worried about losing their money. The stress is going to affect their health.

The other thing is their refrigerator. Something as simple as that. You look in the refrigerator. You see that all they have is a carton of milk and a couple of condiments and they don't really have food in there to eat. That's because they're spending their money on these fraudulent scams and they don't have the money to take care of themselves. Their house is in disarray.

One of the things that we have noticed in our investigations - that the elderly do keep some pretty good records. They have tally sheets of what they're paying out per month because they want to compare it to what their winnings - or supposed winnings - are going to be. Or they actually keep the mailings themselves and write on the mailings what they're paying out and the dates that they're paid out or when the end time is, when the payments are due.

KEYES: Really briefly, Pete, what kind of success has there been with the postal service getting money back for these people that have been scammed for this?

RENDINA: It's very difficult to get money back for the victims. We do have victim assistance through the U.S. Postal Inspection Service. Our federal partners also have victim assistance through DOJ to help these folks and their caregivers get them back onto a financial sound path.

KEYES: Pete Rendina is with the U.S. Postal Inspection Service here in Washington, D.C. and joined us right here in our studios. Pete, thanks for stopping by.

RENDINA: Thank you very much for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KEYES: Just ahead, a recent parenting book suggests that French children have better manners than American kids, and before that, the tiger mother argued that American parents should look to China for child-rearing tips. But one writer thinks parents in the U.S. don't need advice from overseas.

BRIGID SCHULTE: We want to be the best. We're a superpower. What is the best? And, once you ask that question, you walk into a bookstore and there's 25 different experts telling you to do 25 different things.

KEYES: We'll sit down with our diverse panel of moms to ask, what's wrong with parenting American style? That's just ahead on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Allison Keyes.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KEYES: Some of history's most powerful women endured their share of controversy. Now, a series of books aims to uncover the truth.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: All of them raise a very interesting question as to whether they would have been judged differently if they had been men.

KEYES: Our Women's History Month series explores "The Thinking Girl's Treasury of Dastardly Dames" next time on TELL ME MORE.

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