Rochester Post Bulletin

By Matthew Stolle

They come in all different guises.

A long-distance, over-the-phone “love interest” from another country; a lawyer calling in the middle of the night claiming a grandchild is under arrest and in need of money; a person pretending to be a government official.

Exploiting elderly, often lonely, people, the scammers use a protean skill at adopting different disguises and taking money from their victims. As a recent incident in Rochester revealed, the losses can range in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

They scam through phones and texting, emails, and computers. They can be in-person, too. And for the victims, the experience can be financially and emotionally traumatizing.

And the pandemic created a “perfect” environment for such criminals and fraudsters to thrive.

“I always claim that social isolation was a pandemic before the COVID pandemic,” said Sylwia Bujak Oliver, executive director at 125 Live, Rochester’s senior center.

On Wednesday, U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., hosted a roundtable at 125 Live in Rochester to highlight ways to protect seniors from fraud, a form of theft soaring in popularity among criminals.

In addition to Klobuchar and Oliver, Sgt. Eric Strop of the Rochester Police Department; Cathy McLeer, president of AARP Minnesota; Rochester Mayor Kim Norton; and Walt Rothwell, an AARP Fraud Watch Network volunteer also participated in the roundtable.

In 2019, the year before the pandemic, Minnesota consumers reported losing $19 million to scams. In 2021, that number had more than tripled to $60 million, McLeer said.

In Rochester, the police received 670 reports from scam victims in 2021. And this year, at 174 reports through March, complaints are on pace to meet or exceed that number, Strop said.

Those numbers almost certainly underrepresent the problem because many victims, out of shame or fear, fail to report when they've been victimized. That perpetuates the problem, because it allows criminals to move on to their next victim.

“If you’ve been a victim, don’t take the blame on yourself,” McLeer said. “You didn’t ask for this to happen. (Realizing that will make) people more willing to report it.”

Recent legislation, sponsored by Klobuchar and U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, will enhance efforts to educate seniors about the problem, Klobuchar said.

Recently signed by President Biden, the Seniors Fraud Prevention Act pours more money and resources at the federal level. It directs the Federal Trade Commission to create a new office dedicated to educating seniors about fraud schemes.

“We’re going to get all of the schemes gathered in place and report them out,” Klobuchar said. “So, if something’s happening in Missouri, you’re going to hear about it in Minnesota.”

Many seniors are unaware of the nature and extent of the problem until they fall victim to fraud. A recent fraud case involving a 76-year-old Rochester woman who lost nearly $400,000 to a scam illustrated the urgency of combating the problem, participants said.

In that case, the woman was trying to renew a Norton Antivirus software. In dealing with a phony customer representative, the woman was made to believe that the company accidentally deposited $409,000 into the woman’s account. The fake representative persuaded the woman to send payments under $100,000.

Later, in talking with police, the woman said she wasn’t aware such crimes existed.

Last week, a sharing session was held at 125 Live where area seniors discussed losing money to scammers or knowing friends who had lost money, Rothwell said.

Programs aimed at elevating awareness about fraud often fail to draw a big crowd. It’s not a “sexy topic” to sign up for, Rothwell said. So 125 Live has figured out different ways to “embed” the information in other classes.

“We might offer a photography class. We’re going to take the opportunity to inject some elements (about fraud into the class),” he said.

Officials offered common sense tips for fighting fraud. Sign up for the Do Not Call registry. Never send money or give personal information to unknown people over email or phone. Don’t answer inquiries about marital status. Before making a sizable purchase, consult with family and friends for advice.

“People should be able to enjoy their golden years,” Klobuchar said. “Many people have worked their whole lives just to be able to retire in peace and pass money on to their kids and grandkids. We want them to be able to do that.”