Scamming Grandma — A Billion Dollar Industry


Ruth is a retired schoolteacher living in Indianapolis. She’s led an exciting and rewarding life as a wife and mother. She dedicated a few years to serve as an elementary school teacher in Congo along with her husband. Even today, as a 93-year-old widow, she remains active thanks to a recently acquired walker.

Diane Dimond

Sometime in her early 80s Ruth began to lose track of whether she had written her regular monthly check to her favorite charity. So she wrote more checks, sometimes three or four each day. This went on for years, unnoticed by her family, who respected her desire to remain fully independent.

Unbeknownst to Ruth, she became a target of the unscrupulous who work from lists with titles like: “People Over 65 With Dementia” — or — “People Over 65 Who Believe Their Luck is About to Change.” These lists are for sale to predatory telemarketers who zero in on the elderly. Experts say there are over two million names on the first list, about 1.5 million on the latter.

Gathering and selling information like this is not against the law. I wish it were.

Ruth began to get all sorts of odd phone calls and pieces of mail that reminded her she hadn’t paid her monthly subscription for this or that. Although she hadn’t ever asked for this or that, she wrote more checks. The vulture-like practices continued for years, and Ruth even bought a $6,000 pair of hearing aids she never wore.

There’s got to be a special place in hell for people who prey on the old.

Ruth’s family became alarmed at her diminishing bank account. Especially her grandson, Kai Stinchcombe, a Stanford graduate and computer analytics whiz kid. Having been involved with several analytics-driven startup companies, Kai vowed to figure out a way to protect people like his grandmother.

“I couldn’t believe that nobody (had) really cared enough to fix this problem,” Stinchcombe told me on the phone.

So in 2012 he formed a company called True Link, a fraud research firm which helps caregivers discreetly monitor and manage their elderly loved ones’ financial transactions. It doesn’t take away their independence, but it does allow for quiet cancellation of questionable or duplicate payments.

So how big a problem is fraud against the elderly?

True Link’s data science team just released a nationwide survey of caregivers that puts the amount these seniors loose each year to fraud at a knee-buckling $36.48 billion.

Think about that. The money these people saved for their retirement diverted by the corrupt. As the nation’s population grows older, why is it that we hear no cry for justice over this outrage?

Shawna Reeves, Director of Elder Abuse Prevention at the Institute on Aging, is quoted calling it, “An elder financial abuse epidemic.”

The specifics of the fraud are astounding. One 90-something woman had 150 magazine subscriptions. Another elderly woman became convinced she’d won the Australian lottery and began sending money via Western Union to pay for fees, taxes and travel expenses so she could pick up her “winnings.”

There are also scams targeted to 50- and 60-year-old men. Online dating services where the “date” begs for money before meeting. Investment scams targeting men who are confident day traders. Scams for vacation trips, phony weight-loss treatments and diabetic supplies.

“Ironically,” Stinchcombe told me, “People in their 60s loose more money than those in their 80s and 90s,” because they often have more disposable income.

Then there are the 3 a.m. phone frauds. They star the conversation by telling the groggy grandparent, “Hello, it’s your favorite grandson … ” And when grandma says, “Joey? What’s wrong?” the scammers have her. They pretend to be Joey. They cry, say they can’t locate their mom and are in dire need of money to get out of a Mexican prison or past immigration officials who won’t let them come home.

Some of this sounds ridiculous to us, but to an older person with diminished capacity, it is all too real.

It is way past time to demand attention be paid to stop these despicable crimes. Sure, you are aware enough to fend off these scandalous swindles. But are your aging parents? Aunts, uncles, siblings and other loved ones? No, they may not be. Otherwise this wouldn’t be a $36-billion-dollar-a-year underground industry. Time to make it stop.

Rockland resident Diane Dimond is a syndicated columnist, author, regular guest on TV news programs, and correspondent for Newsweek/Daily Beast. Visit her at or reach her via email [email protected]

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