When it comes to scams, Beatrice Cooper of Andover is a savvy senior . The 83-year-old has received shady offers by mail, phone, and e-mail. And then there was the letter that warned she had to act fast to avoid a problem with the title to her house.
"Saying that if I didn't respond, I would be in big trouble," she said. "I found out that other people had received the same thing and it indeed was a scam. My heart does go out to older people who do get ripped off."
The elderly are prime targets for financial scams. The nation's older citizens are duped out of billions of dollars a year. But law enforcement agencies, advocacy groups and bankers in Minnesota are trying to educate seniors about how to detect and avoid scams that can cost them much or all of their savings.
The National Adult Protective Services Association estimates most victims of elder fraud are between the ages of 80 and 89. They generally live alone. Women are twice more likely to be victimized than men.
A 2009 study by MetLife's Mature Market Institute estimates financial abuse and fraud costs seniors about $2.9 billion per year. That includes ripoffs not only by strangers but also friends and family members.
Con artists often share so-called "sucker lists" that include detailed financial information about victims, as well as scams they've fallen for.
U.S. Bank sees to many scams aimed at the elderly that they train bankers and tellers to be on the look-out for scams targeting older customers, according to Erica Opstad who heads up the bank's office of financial education
For instance, when a customer comes in to get a certified check to prepay taxes on winnings in a foreign lottery, Opstad said bank employees will urge caution.
"As customers increase in age, so are the number of these cases," said Opstad.
Opstad said that once a check is cashed or money is wired to another account, the money probably isn't coming back. The crook will slip away.
Minnesota Attorney Lori General Swanson said seniors are targeted because many have substantial savings or significant equity in their homes.
"It may not be a lot of money," she said. "But it makes them more of target than a 20-year-old who has not built up savings."
The Attorney General's website includes warnings about dozens of common scams.
"It can run the gamut," she said. "There are $30 scams and there are quarter of a million dollar scams."
Swanson sued a South Dakota company that she claims scammed farmers investing in windmills.
"Seniors mortgaged their farms to take out a loan to buy this energy project that was supposed to then deliver income to them," said Swanson.
Many scams go unreported because people are embarrassed, according to Lori Skibbie, an elder law attorney for Volunteers of America Minnesota.
Skibbie says boomers' parents--many of whom went through the Great Depression and World War II-- are vulnerable because of their values, not just their age and the impairments that can go with it.
"But I think a lot of it is you have a generation of people who feel a need to help others,'' Skibbie said. '' So, if they get some kind of mail or solicitation that they think someone is really in trouble and they need help, I think they're more likely to extend that help.''
Skibbie says seniors shouldn't hesitate to ask trusted advisors about deals and offers that seem shady. And she says friends and family should keep an eye on seniors, too, warning them away from schemes designed to take their money away.
''That can help to have someone to say, 'You know mom, this isn't real. You didn't win the lottery. You never entered the lottery. So, you couldn't have won.''' she said. ''But a lot of people don't have that support.''