Scam Artists Target Older Vets
Here are some tips for recognizing some of the biggest frauds making the rounds and what veterans can do to protect themselves
As aging World War II veteran Johnnie Ray Toland started showing signs of Alzheimer's, his family began searching for an assisted living home to care for him. Staff members at one home introduced the family to Tammi Palasini.
Palasini, who would later be sentenced to 20 years behind bars for various crimes, including fraud, convinced the Toland family to give her control of $340,000 of their funds.
Aid and Assistance Scam
In what is known as an "aid and assistance scam," Palasini falsely promised the Toland family that she would help diversify their father's assets to get beneath the threshold to qualify for VA benefits and earn a return on their investment.
It wasn't until after Toland's death three years later that the family learned Palasini was a scam artist who had victimized them and their father.
On the same day as Toland's funeral, a postal inspector contacted the victim's son, Jimmy, and told him of Palasini's fraudulent schemes, revealing that on the same day they gave Palasini control of the $340,000, she used their money to purchase a race car and advertising for her son.
Millions and Millions Go Missing
Palasini scammed 78 veterans out of more than $2 million in assets through various means, including her fraudulent investment company, "Veterans' Pension Planners of America." Sadly, scam artists commonly single out older veterans like Toland.
Veterans and military families are nearly 40% more likely to lose money to scams and fraud than civilians.
About 2.4 million Americans filed fraud complaints with the Federal Trade Commission last year, reporting aggregate losses of nearly $8.8 billion. That was an increase of more than 30% over the previous year, the commission said.
According to a November 2021 AARP survey, veterans and military families are nearly 40% more likely to lose money to scams and fraud than civilians. The FTC's Consumer Sentinel consumer complaint database received over 200,000 complaints from military consumers in 2021 alone, with reported losses exceeding $267 million.
The oldest of America's 19 million veterans are at the highest risk. In most cases, phone scammers targeted veterans by warning of impending issues with their VA benefits.
Thankfully, awareness of the scams that target older veterans is growing, as indicated by the rise of new educational resources such as the AARP Veterans Fraud Center and the United States Postal Inspection Service's Operation Protect Veterans.
Tips for Older Veterans and Their Families
Being the victim of a scam is traumatic, leaving vets or their families feeling vulnerable and even helpless. But you can fight back and protect yourself by watching for signs of scams and acting quickly.
• Be aware of the prevalence of scams
Often scammers will pose as your financial provider. Know that any calls, texts or emails from your bank that say your account is at risk or flag an emergency could be fraudulent.
"My rule of thumb is don't take the call, make the call," said Mike Steinbach, Head of Global Fraud Prevention at Citi. "Pick up the phone and call the phone number listed on your credit card, debit card or monthly financial statement to confirm whether the request is legitimate."
"My rule of thumb is don't take the call, make the call."
Scammers often create a false sense of urgency to pressure you to comply with their demands before you can independently confirm whether they are telling the truth. If someone contacts you and pressures you with time constraints to hand over sensitive information like your Social Security number or credit card details, it's usually bogus.
"Your gut is your most valuable resource and your first line of defense," Steinbach said. "If something seems wrong, keep your personal information private."
• 'Vet' those who claim to represent veterans
Many scammers falsely claim to represent non-profit veterans' organizations or even the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and try to scare veterans by claiming you could face legal action unless you provide your Veteran Health Identification Card ID or other sensitive information.
According to the Postal Inspection Service, veterans are exceptionally vulnerable to scams where the culprit poses as a military member. Due to their military experiences, some veterans may find it hard to detect the emotional manipulation these scam artists deploy on their victims.
"Your first step is to immediately call the government agency via their official hotline — not the number that called you — to confirm whether the request is legitimate," Steinbach said.
• Set up mobile banking app alerts and banking statements
Steve Lee's parents, who are in their mid-80s, were contacted during the holidays by organizations claiming to represent police, firefighters and veterans. Lee's mother and father, who served in the Ohio National Guard, gave their credit card number to legitimate-sounding telemarketers and lost $705 in 17 different transactions within three weeks.
"The sooner you spot potentially fraudulent activity, the sooner you can work to address and resolve it."
Lee and his parents called their bank's debit card fraud control to comb through each transaction and issue a new card. The couple also purchased a call blocker for the landline that only allows calls from numbers permitted on an app synced with their mobile contacts.
"The sooner you spot potentially fraudulent activity, the sooner you can work to address and resolve it," Steinbach said. "Take advantage of technology that tracks your accounts and purchases in real-time. Sign up for push alerts from your bank, and regularly check your statements online."
If you or a loved one feel like you could be at risk for bank or credit card fraud, consider a finance management app like EverSafe, which oversees your bank account and credit card to track and flag irregularities.
Apps like EverSafe are designed with older adults in mind and even have a "trusted advocate" tool that gives adult children of aging parents and other trusted caregivers access to monitor the account's activity.
No matter their age, men and women who have served this country deserve to retire secure in the knowledge that their life savings are safe.