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Stalking predators who prey on seniors
The lowlifes who scam your grandma, or abuse your elderly neighbour's trust, aren't always strangers, authorities say
February 26, 2007

Life Writer

They've heard it all. The salesman's knock, then pitch: "Sign up now for new installed windows at our amazing seniors' discount." And the telemarketers' calls: "The XYZ children's charity needs your help," or "You've won a free Caribbean cruise!"

At a seminar on elder abuse and fraud last week, about 35 seniors at Scarborough Village Recreation Centre talked about the gamut of cons they've heard, from silver-tongued salesmen to phishing schemes (email attempts to get personal financial information) and ways to protect themselves. The raffle prize was, appropriately, a shredder.

"You just can't trust people," says one woman. "It's a shame, not like it used to be," adds her friend.

Sadly, the financial abusers aren't always strangers.

Friends, family and hired caregivers have been caught dipping into a senior's bank account, even wiping out a life's savings. "It's often someone known to the senior. It's broken trust," says Sharon Galway, owner of Home Instead Senior Care in North York, which provides non-medical home care.

About 150,000 to 160,000 Ontario seniors suffer abuse – financial, emotional, physical – every year, according to Teri Kay, executive director of the Ontario Network for the Prevention of Elder Abuse. But since seniors are often too embarrassed or intimidated to report the crime, she explains, a great deal goes undetected.

And, as our population ages, elder abuse is expected to increase. Scamming seniors can be big business, and it's the focus of the abuse prevention network's annual conference this week in Toronto.

The most common cons targeting the elderly are home improvement work and telemarketing schemes, says OPP Sgt. Rick Tout, co-ordinator of senior assistance. Recently reported cases include:

  • A con man convinced a 79-year-old Toronto woman that her home needed waterproofing and a new basement floor, defrauding her of more than $80,000.



  • A scam artist netted close to $3 million by selling phony bonds to mainly elderly victims.



  • A Montreal-based telemarketing fraud ring, dismantled by the RCMP in December, was found to have grossed between $8 million and $13 million annually since 2003. In one of its schemes, telemarketers called mainly senior citizens to tell them they'd won a large sum of money. But to claim the prize, they had to send in $1,500 or more to cover various costs.



  • In Toronto, police say, a recent con involves an individual arriving at a senior's home impersonating a health care worker or a counsellor. Once inside, the person steals wallets or other valuables when the senior isn't looking.


    The scam artists find their elderly victims in various ways, including roaming a neighbourhood and knocking on doors or buying what police call "sucker lists" – fraudulent telemarketers keep the names of people they've successfully conned and sell them to other groups.

    If someone suspects they are on a sucker list, OPP Det. Sgt. Debbie Bell advises telling the marketers, "Do not call. I will tell the police you're bothering me."

    Keep hanging up on them, refuse to interact. "It takes persistence and determination," says Bell. "But over time, you'll get off the list." A call-display phone feature can also be helpful.

    Bell works with PhoneBusters, a national anti-fraud call centre operated by the OPP and the RCMP. PhoneBusters will connect an elderly victim of telemarketing with one of its senior volunteers as a sort of phone buddy, who will explain the scams and keep in contact.

    Elderly people are often susceptible to scams because they need money to supplement their fixed income, suffer from infirmities and, most importantly, are often lonely. Investigators say some telemarketers play on the loneliness, establishing a rapport with a senior and calling back regularly.

    It's the profound desire for human contact that makes seniors so vulnerable to abuse from loved ones. "A senior may have lost a spouse, siblings, friends, and is willing to put up with a dysfunctional or abusive relationship, thinking it's better than nothing at all," explains Toronto Police Const. Pat Fleischmann, who deals with vulnerable persons issues.

    Family members, she says, may use emotional blackmail, such as, "You'll never see me or your grandchildren again if you don't sign this cheque."

    Other cases are more subtle. A trusted friend or relative who does chores, including banking, might start by taking out a little money on the sly, and then escalate the pilfering over time. They sometimes persuade seniors to sign over their power of attorney, the legal right to act on their behalf.

    "An older adult can lose everything and become homeless," says Fleischmann. "When a stranger does it, the victim feels like a fool. But when it's someone close and personal, the feeling is horrid."


    The annual conference and trade show of the Ontario Network for the Prevention of Elder Abuse runs today and tomorrow at the Doubletree International Plaza Hotel, Toronto Airport, 655 Dixon Rd., Toronto. See or call 416-640-7784.
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