The man's voice on the phone was neighborly and quick. He told Eleanor Brown, a recent widow living alone in western Massachusetts, that he had good news. She had won $25,000. "It sounded like he had known my husband," she says, "and he talked about his family, too."
If Mrs. Brown would send $1,900 to cover fees and taxes, the man would send the prize to her. Brown dipped into the $25,000 savings account left to her by her husband after 45 years of work. She wrote a check and sent it off. The scam was under way.
All across the United States, tens of thousands of elders - in modest circumstances like Brown or more affluent and educated - are snared each day in telemarketing frauds. Losses add up to a staggering $50 billion a year - mostly by older Americans.
For the next year, Brown heard the man's voice dangle the $25,000 prize just out of reach under a barrage of phone calls asking for more and more money. Other voices joined the chorus, calling sometimes five and six times a day, like sharks nibbling at Brown's gentle trust with deceptions and false hope.
Why don't they hang up?
What increasingly concerns experts working to stop such phone fraud is the inability of many elders like Brown to either see through the scams at first, or to extricate themselves as their losses mount.
And with America's older population increasing, many federal, state, and private agencies are beginning to collaborate to find an answer to the central question: Why don't more elders simply hang up the phone when requests for money continue?
"Older, polite people do not hang up the phone on a person that sounds like their grandson," says John Barker, director of the National Fraud Information Center in Washington, an arm of the National Consumer's League.
Alone and much too trusting, Brown sent off more and more money as the scam continued. "At one point they said they would be coming out this way" to see the fall foliage, she says quietly. "I went down to the bakery shop and bought stuff. I set the table and had the coffee pot ready. But nobody showed up."
Even though tougher federal and state antifraud laws were passed in January, laws are only effective if potential victims know the laws. "What we have done to educate the elderly in the past has not worked," Mr. Barker says.
Of 140,000 US telemarketing firms, about 10 percent are estimated to be scammers. Federal and local authorities late last year snared some 400 scammers during raids in 14 states.
Finally, after Brown explained that she was out of money, one of the phone voices suddenly spewed a string of expletives at her. Only then did she contact the police. She was telling the truth. Her entire $25,000 was gone, along with several thousand dollars racked up on her credit cards.
Because the "companies" that deceived Brown no longer exist, recovering her money is not possible. Her new telephone number is unlisted, but dozens of letters continue to pour in each week telling her she has won millions. And she is responsible for the credit-card losses even though social workers have appealed to the credit-card company on her behalf.
Part of the problem, experts say, is that so many elders are rooted in an earlier, more trusting age. "People that are best at scams really understand human nature," says Liz Kelner, client-services director of Franklin County (Mass.) Home Care. "Just as the elders are saying, 'I'm getting into this deeper and deeper,' the scammers know how to play on their hopes," she says.
A recent nationwide survey by the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) discovered that 50 percent of elder-fraud victims could not distinguish a fraudulent phone call from a legitimate call.
In addition, shame over their involvement prevents many elderly people from reporting the fraud. AARP officials estimate that only 15 percent of those victimized ever report it.
"One of the surprising things we learned," says Katie Sloan, manager of consumer affairs for AARP, "is that many victims are well-educated and connected to friends and events their communities. These were not people just waiting for the phone to ring."
In Brown's case, her husband and daughter had passed away within five weeks of each other just before the telemarketing calls started. "After that I didn't go out much," she says. "Outside of calling in-laws, I don't talk to anybody here."
Brown thought each check she sent out would be the last. "Once I got started, I didn't want to lose what I had already sent," she says. "I thought eventually I would get the money they promised me."
The voices on the phones played on all her sympathies and fragility. "One of the guys said, 'I don't believe in sending my children to Sunday School; I believe in taking them myself,' " Brown says. "He knew that hit a bell with me because my husband and I were good Christian-living people."
Because past efforts to educate elders about fraud have been generally ineffective, many officials say, they are searching for new ways to help.
Sometime this year, after new research, surveys, and discussions are completed, agencies including the US Department of Justice, the Federal Trade Commission, AARP, various consumer agencies, and the National Fraud Information Center will collaborate in announcing different ways to combat telemarketing fraud among elders.
American Express just awarded the National Fraud Information Center a $250,000 grant to aid research to help elders defend themselves.
Of the 600 daily calls to the National Fraud Information Center's Hotline (800-876-7060), 300 are directly related to phone fraud against elders. "Often it is the victim's family calling and saying they can't get their mother or father to stop sending their money away," Barker says.
Gaming culture breeds greed
Another factor working against elders, experts say, is a cultural environment that now publicly encourages gambling, lotteries, and contests with multimillion dollar winners announced on TV. "In our research, loneliness often had less to do with the victims than we previously thought," Sloan says. "Rather, there was a lot of curiosity and greed at work."
Others point to the tenacious skills of the scammers calling from "boiler rooms" with rosters known as "suckers lists," or names of elders who have proved to be easy marks. The lists are bought and sold among the scammers. Pressure from the callers can seem overwhelming.
"It's psychological manipulation," says Jonathan Rusch, senior litigation counsel in the criminal division of the US Department of Justice. "What drives the telemarketing scams is the guarantee to the elderly that they are going to win," he says. "Greed isn't really the issue. People are induced to send in money because their trust and good nature is played upon."
Brown says she hopes her story will help other elders. "I would say now to never, never do anything with these companies, even if you think you know them. I lost all my money because of them."
WHAT TO DO TO AVOID FRAUD:
*Ask for printed materials through the mail. Those materials should include the company's name, address, and phone number, a description of how your money will be spent, and a business license number or a charity registration number.
*Contact your secretary of state's office or local attorney general office to verify the information sent to you.
*Never send cash through the mail or give it at your door. Write a check and state what the money is for on the check.
*Never reveal your credit-card number or bank-account information over the phone unless you initiate the call.
*Give yourself time to think about it before buying or giving.
*Tell the person that you do not wish to be called again, and list the company's name by the phone. If they call you back, or for another reason you suspect the company is not legitimate, call your state attorney general.
Telephone fraud is on the rise in the US because many older people have not used these tips. New efforts to stop scams involve community intervention.