Chris Schulz Published

U.S. Attorney Warns Elder Financial Fraud On The Rise

A $100 bill is shown cut into ten via Flickr

Cases of seniors being scammed by strangers, or even victimized by loved ones and caretakers are common in West Virginia and the country at large. William Ihlenfeld is the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of West Virginia and prosecutes those charged in such cases. 

He spoke with reporter Chris Schulz to raise awareness of these crimes and how to avoid them. Their phone connection caused some technical problems, but we felt the topic was important enough that we wanted to bring you this discussion. 

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Schulz: Can you tell me a little bit about the state of fraud in West Virginia, what is the magnitude of this issue that we’re facing?

Ihlenfeld: Elder financial exploitation is trending upward in West Virginia, and throughout the country. Last year, in the United States, those aged 60 and older lost $3 billion to scammers. To broaden it out a little bit more, the U.S. Treasury Department did a report that showed $27 billion in suspicious activity related to elder financial fraud. So it is a significant issue. It’s an issue that is very difficult for law enforcement and for society to get its arms around for a variety of reasons. The targets of this type of fraud are vulnerable, and so the criminals have identified a really good target for them. It’s a tremendous challenge for us and, and it’s important that we talk about it, so that we can try to protect people from becoming victims.

Schulz: Let’s talk a little bit about that protection. When it gets to your desk, unfortunately, it’s gone pretty far beyond the point of return. But what are some things that folks themselves and also relatives and community members need to be looking out for?

Ihlenfeld: There are times when we are able to prevent something from happening even when it gets to my desk. Sometimes we can even reverse a wire that has been sent by someone who has been victimized by some sort of fraudulent scheme. You have to call us quickly, you have to get to us within a short period of time, but we have been successful in putting what’s called a kill switch on a transfer of money from someone in West Virginia, to someone who is perpetrating a scheme upon them. I just want people to be aware that if either they themselves or a family member, or a friend has sent money, and they quickly realize that they shouldn’t have sent that money, if they contact the U.S. Attorney’s Office, we might be able to reverse or freeze the money. 

With that being said, many of the cases that come to my office have already resulted in a loss to someone. So my guidance to people, whether themselves or their family members, would be this: One, resist the pressure to act quickly. Criminals are always using the sense of urgency to their advantage. We see this over and over where the criminals are saying that they need the money right now, they need it by the end of the day or else whatever it is that they’re offering is not going to be available anymore. It might be a lottery scheme where they’re promising to send money to our victim, but the victim needs to get them a processing fee by the close of business or else the opportunity will no longer exist. So always resist the pressure to act quickly. Instead of acting quickly, hang up the phone or stop communicating with that person and call a friend or a loved one that you trust, and ask them what they think. 

My second tip would be never to click on a link that is sent to you via text message or via email that you weren’t expecting to receive. The reason for that is because it has the potential to release malware onto your device, whether it’s your phone, or your tablet or your laptop. That could allow someone to gain access to your bank accounts or whatever other information you might have on your devices to include your personally identifiable information, like your social security number, if that might be on any of your devices. 

Another important thing for people to keep in mind is to be careful with a power of attorney. Power of attorney is an important document that allows you to have someone else take care of your business affairs and your medical affairs if you’re no longer able to do so. However, we’ve seen many cases where a power of attorney has been abused by the person who’s been provided with that authority. So you have to be very careful and make sure that you can completely and 100 percent trust the person you’re giving that power to. Another way to go about it is to give someone a limited power of attorney and not give such a broad power, which is what we typically see in those documents. Most of the time a power of attorney is going to give someone authority to basically stand in your shoes, but it doesn’t have to be that way. You can ask an attorney to draft something that’s more restrictive, and that limits the power that the person has, that you’re trusting to help you. 

The last thing I would say is with regard to in-home care. Sadly, after adult children, the second most common category of perpetrators of adult theft are in-home care providers. Those would be nurse’s aides and rehabilitation workers and others who come into your home to take care of you. But unfortunately, there are a large number of cases involving folks like that who are taking advantage of the person they’re caring for and writing checks from their account, transferring money from their accounts, gaining access to their credit card or their debit card and using those for their own benefit. My advice there is if you to have someone coming in to take care of a loved one, to make sure that you secure all the valuables, that you make sure that checking account and investment account information is locked away, and that there’s no access to information, or documents that might allow someone to steal from the person they’re supposed to be caring for.

Schulz: In this increasingly digital age, has your office had to deal with more of these digital touch points for fraud? Google searches or your ads on websites, things of that nature.

Ihlenfeld: I can’t think of a specific example that matches up with what you just described within the Northern District of West Virginia. However, I’m aware of that happening in other offices throughout the country, other U.S. Attorney’s offices throughout the country, within the Department of Justice. I will say this, with the advances in technology, with advancements in artificial intelligence, all the other good things that come with it that allow the device in our pocket basically connected with the world and do so many things, it also comes with giving these criminals the ability to to do things that they weren’t previously able to do. One of the things that gives us great concern is with regard to mimicking someone’s voice. We’ve got the common scheme of a family member in need, where grandma gets a call from, they believe it’s a grandchild. And they think that that grandchild is in trouble and that they need to send that grandchild money right away. With advances in AI, it’s going to be a lot easier to trick someone into believing that it is actually a loved one on the other end of the call. Same thing with government impersonation, which is a very common scheme where someone pretends to be with the FBI or the IRS, and they call and they demand that you pay money, or something bad’s going to happen, or someone’s generally in law enforcement, that you have to come down and pay a ticket or pay a fine or something that doesn’t really make sense. But it sounds very believable over the phone. All of those things are going to make it harder for victims to detect that it’s a fraud, and make it more likely that those schemes are going to succeed going forward.

Schulz: What, what are the penalties for these transgressions? Are they all always federal level, because of wire fraud and things of that nature? What are people facing when they commit these crimes?

Ihlenfeld: In some of these cases, many of these cases, there’s concurrent jurisdiction, in that they can be prosecuted in either state or federal court. The example in my op-ed related to the Sam Bunner of the Eastern Panhandle. He took close to $2 million from the victim, and he was sentenced to just over 10 years in federal prison. The penalty is going to be driven by the amount of the fraud that’s been committed. The more you take, the longer your sentence is going to be. Your criminal history also plays a role in what penalty you receive. And so Mr. Bunner had a prior felony conviction for embezzling from I believe it was the Red Cross. He embezzled and stole debit cards that were supposed to go to disaster relief victims. So he had at least one felony conviction on his record that caused enhancement at the time of sentencing. 

If the amount is smaller, it doesn’t mean it’s, it won’t be prosecuted. The penalty might not be as long though. So if someone an in-home care provider, let’s say use a credit card of the person they’re supposed to be caring for, without that person’s permission, and they run up a bill of $5,000, that probably is more likely going to be prosecuted in state court, because the amounts a little bit smaller, but it still could carry a prison term and that would be up to the circuit court judge who hears that case. And again, the circuit court judge on the state side is gonna look at the criminal history of the person and see if they ever violated the law in the past, and that will weigh in to the judge’s decision as far as how much the penalty should be. But something like that in state court could be a one to 10 year range that can be imposed if somebody is misusing someone’s credit card. A shorter answer to your question would be: the sentences could be in the charges can be filed in either state or federal court. And the sentences are going to be driven by the criminal history of the perpetrator and the amount of the fraud that’s committed.

Schulz: Is there anything else that I haven’t given you the opportunity to discuss or anything that you’d like to highlight at this point?
Ihlenfeld: Yeah, there’s just one more thing that I really hadn’t hit me until I’ve been reading a lot on this issue, in addition to working on it on a daily basis, and it’s something that is important to talk about. It’s the fact that when someone is a victim of something like this, they’ve been tricked. They’ve fallen victim to this. It’s embarrassing and it can also be traumatic, depending upon the person who does the victimizing. If it’s a romance scam, for example, we don’t always want to talk about that. We don’t always want to go in and file a police report because of the embarrassment that we feel. But from my perspective, from the law enforcement perspective, we strongly encourage people to come forward. There’s not going to be any judgment, we see it happen on a regular basis. It’s very easy to get tricked because the perpetrators are more and more sophisticated than ever before. So we would encourage people to come forward, we understand that it’s not easy to talk about it. But we’ve dealt with this before and we encourage people to come in and talk to us. We’ll do everything we can to hold the perpetrator accountable, and to recover the money that’s been stolen.