Scammers Stole All of My Grandma's Money
The trouble started innocently enough. For as long as I can remember, Grandma bought a lottery ticket each and every week. She promised us, her children and grandchildren, that when she won (not if), she would solve all of our financial problems. Grandma was the ultimate giver. She was generous with her time, her love, and especially with food. A child of the Great Depression, she has a love of abundance, and a dread of hunger and deprivation. It is her personal tragedy that these motives led her to total financial ruin late in life, as she willingly handed her life savings, over $100,000, to con artists and thieves.
In addition to buying lottery tickets, Grandma liked to send away for offers and sweepstakes she found in magazines and newspapers. This is when things began to get bad. Naturally, she gave away her phone number and address when she filled out these forms, and that led to receiving more offers in the mail, which she filled out in turn. She loved the idea of winning a lot of money, and she was a regular with Publisher's Clearing House. The thing is, some of these sweepstakes offers are less than honest in their presentation. They come packaged to look as if you've already won something, and you only have to send in for your winnings. The outside of the envelope trumpets "You've won $10,000 [Your Name Here]!" and you have to read carefully to find out that you haven't actually won anything. This is relatively harmless when all they want to collect from you is your address and phone number, but not all of the mailings were so benign. Grandma began to get mailings asking for entry fees in order to win the big prize, and she sent these willingly, assuming that for her small entry fee she was going to get a big payout. She never seemed to understand that this was a lie.
Eventually, pure scammers got a hold of Grandma's address and phone number. They sent letters asking for thousands of dollars in exchange for some promised jackpot. Grandma sent it. She began to go through her savings accounts, spending money rapidly on one scam after another. My Aunt saw what was going on and became alarmed, but she could not convince Grandma that these people were stealing the money. Although the activity was illegal, there was no way to track down the scammers or hold them accountable. She convinced Grandma to change her phone number, but Grandma simply gave it away again, and soon enough the scammers found her again. My aunt, desperate, contacted the state attorney general, who tried to help by personally calling Grandma to talk her out of giving away any of her money. This didn't work. Grandma was convinced, remember, that it was not a matter of if she would win the big jackpot, but when. It's a fair bet that she was also a full-fledged gambling addict by this point--about five years ago, at age 85.
The scamming continued, and Grandma blew through her savings at a rapid rate. The scams became increasingly less subtle. For example, someone would send her a check for $3000. Then the someone would call and tell her they made a mistake, and if she would return their $3000 (by personal check), they would send her $6000. Can you see how this works? The original check is bad. So it bounces, and Grandma has sent them $3000, and not received anything. Of course she never hears from them again. Eventually, all of her money was gone. Over $100,000.
This is the point in the article where I'm supposed to tell you what to do about this, or how to keep your parents or grandparents from being scammed. The problem is, I've got nothing. If your loved one will not defend him or herself, then there is nothing you can do but watch it happen, like a car crash drawn out over a decade.
You could look at this from the outside, and say that the problem could be solved this way or that way. Why didn't someone seize power-of-attorney over Grandma's finances? Well, my Aunt tried, and didn't succeed. The courts were not able to find Grandma mentally incompetent, although they were as horrified by the situation as anyone. My Aunt merely permanently damaged her relationship with her mother, replacing love and trust with bitterness, anger, and resentment. My Aunt also tried things like talking to the bank manager, asking him not to allow Grandma to withdraw all of her money. Unfortunately, there is no way within the law for the bank manager to help with this. And of course she tried talking to Grandma. Tried. And tried. And tried.
Recently, Grandma was diagnosed with Alzheimer's, which finally sheds some light on her bizarre behavior. She is starting to receive treatment. But nothing will bring her savings back. She is penniless, and has stopped sending money to scam artists only because she has nothing left to send. Her health is very poor, and she could benefit from a home health aid and a housekeeper, but the money she would have used to pay for these services is gone. She will be taken care of, because she has children and grandchildren who love her. But that's not what she wanted. She wanted to take care of us.
I don't think there's anything we can do, or could have done, individually, to keep this from happening to her. But she's not the only one. Can we change the law to be tougher on scammers, to crack down harder on misleading mailings or phone calls (none of this happened on the internet)? Can we do a better job protecting the privacy of senior citizens and other vulnerable populations? What about tweaks to banking laws to prevent people from being taken in by bad check scams? There has to be some way to hold these thieves accountable, and get back money that was stolen.