By David Hawley
The man who contacted A.C. Kulak on an Internet chat site claimed to be a stressed-out American surgeon working for the United Nations in war-torn Syria. But in reality, he was a member of an overseas scam ring.
“I felt sorry for him, and that’s how he really got me,” said Kulak, 80, a retired clerical worker from the Minneapolis area.
Over a period of months, the “surgeon” and other members of the scam ring bombarded Kulak with fake documents and requests for loans. The fraud was revealed last summer when two checks totaling more than $30,000 prompted a call from the bank informing Kulak of the probable scam.
Unfortunately, Kulak’s experience isn’t rare. According to the nonprofit Investor Protection Trust, 1 in 5 Americans over 65 have been swindled.
The criminal schemes are many and varied—from get-rich investment frauds to phony home inspectors and bogus repair firms. Callers impersonating government officials sometimes tell victims they owe a penalty for missing jury duty, or claim to be from the IRS and say the victim can avoid immediate arrest by paying a tax fine with a credit card.
From victim to victor
But unlike many scam victims, Kulak fought back. Payment was stopped on one of the checks and the crime reported to local police investigators, along with the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center, the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and other agencies. With their help, Kulak managed to recover most of the lost money.
Kulak decided to share the story. “It’s worth any embarrassment if it helps other people avoid what happened to me.”
Authorities say scams against older Americans are on the rise.
“The baby boom generation is the wealthiest generation in U.S. history, and scammers know it,” said Mike Rothman, Minnesota commissioner of commerce. “These criminals know that it’s easier to scam senior citizens than it is to rob a bank.”
A variety of state agencies and other organizations, including AARP, are helping victims of scams and educating people on ways to avoid becoming victims.
For the past three years, AARP Minnesota has been conducting about 100 free community information sessions each year for groups throughout the state. Jay Haapala, AARP Minnesota associate state director for community outreach, has trained 20 volunteers to help him conduct the sessions. AARP also operates a national Fraud Watch Network call center to assist victims and answer consumers’ questions about fraud at 877-908-3360 toll-free.
“We try to help victims of scams, but the real focus is on educating people about ways to avoid scams in the first place,” Haapala said.
Last year, AARP Minnesota also was a sponsor of Scam Jams in the Twin Cities area and Rochester. The events attracted hundreds of participants and resulted in a 26-minute documentary for Twin Cities Public TV that can be viewed online.
AARP Minnesota will cosponsor another Scam Jam on June 7 at the Fargodome in Fargo, N.D. For information, contact aarp.org/mn or call 877-926-8300 toll-free.
The state’s Department of Commerce (telephone 888-FRAUD MN) and the Minnesota Attorney General’s Office (800-657-3787) also have extensive online information about fraud and exploitation targeting older citizens.
“People should report scams to our office,” said Attorney General Lori Swanson. “We use this information to warn the public, enforce state law and coordinate with law enforcement. ‘Minnesota nice’ does not apply to scammers,” Swanson added. “Don’t talk with the bad guys. Just hang up the phone.”
To volunteer as an AARP Minnesota Fraud Fighter, contact Haapala at email@example.com or 651-726-5654.
David Hawley is a writer living in Edina, Minn.