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FBI warns seniors about phone scams

The Websters hope they can warn other people about the risks of fraud.

In 2021, the Internet Crime Complaint Center reported an an increase in fraud — in Illinois, victims over 60 lost almost 50 million dollars.

The FBI's Springfield Bureau is warning that anyone can be vulnerable — even former directors of the FBI.

Lynda Webster noticed her husband, former FBI Director Judge William Webster, was getting some unusual calls and started listening in. She wanted to look out for her husband, who is 98.

"Bill started getting a lot of phone calls from people offering things that were just too good to be true. Or he'd get phone calls from people in distress saying they needed money," she said.

Recordings of the calls were used in an FBI investigation. The calls, Webster said, were very convincing.

"We chose to give you this amount because I do some of your background check," a scammer told Judge Webster, claiming he had one a prize. "I know you was a judge, you was a lawyer, you was in the US Navy, Homeland Security and the basketball team, all that stuff, I do your background check."

FBI Supervisory Special Agent Price McCarty said that isn't unusual.

"This is their full time profession. Their job is to steal money that doesn't belong to them. And it's time spent and establishing that trust, they will do that. That is their job. That is their full time job," he said.

McCarty said it isn't technology or age that makes seniors so vulnerable.

"It's their isolation, it can be their loneliness, it can be their disconnect from family and friends. And then they're very receptive to people who are seeking to communicate with them, show interest in their lives," he said.

Another reason seniors are often targeted, he said, is because they've had more time to build up wealth that scammers can try to take.

"They've spent lifetimes accumulating assets, planning for retirement, building up equity in their homes, saving for retirement, college accounts, looking after their families. They have a lifetime of hard work and they've worked to save and secure their future," McCarty explained.

McCarty said while some scams do rely on newer technology, scams have been going on long before social media and email.

"Phones have been around a long time. Mail has been around even longer than that. And those are just means of communicating that the subjects use to communicate with their victims," he said.

Scams can take many forms. Someone may believe they have been hired to open bank accounts and move money, which helps the scammers cover their tracks. Scammers may offer investments or say that victims need to send money in to receive a prize they've won or hand over bank account information.

But the most common, McCarty said, are relationship scams. These can include people who enter into a romantic relationship with a senior, promising to come join them in the US but requiring financial support in the meantime. But they can also include calls where scammers pretend to be service members or Americans stuck overseas who need help.

Scammers may also imitate family members are friends, calling and claiming they need help and don't want other people to find out the situation they're in.

That's the type of scam Judge Webster nearly fell for.

"He's been down to the Western Union because he thought that the grandchild was in distress and he thought an old friend of his, he said on an an email that she was in Spain and her wallet had been stolen and she needed $500. So twice he marched down to Western Union, was going to wire money to the scammers. It was so well done And the Western Union very smartly says, Are you sure these people need the money? Why don't you check again?" Webster said.

The FBI defines these fraud scams broadly.

"It's anything that tricks them, it deceives them to simply turning over either access to their accumulated assets. It could be their real property, such as their homes, it could be their bank accounts, it could be their retirement accounts," he said.

But the scams can also turn frightening, even if the scammers start out friendly.

"They are great actors. The scammer that is now sitting in jail for 71 months, he was as sweet as can be. Real friendly, real polite. Until I got the picture. And then he turned vile. He threatened to kill me and threatened to shoot my brains out onto the white house that we owned, and he threatened to kill my husband and he threatened to burn down our house," she said.

On a recording, the scammer made threats that included details about the couple's home.

"So listen, I'm not giving you any more warning. I'm just going to send up my guys and listen, anytime you put yourself back in Washington DC you will be killed with a sniper. I know you're home. I see, the place where you're home at, you live in a very lonely place. The moment you arrive, I'm going to put a slug in your head, I'm going to burn your house down. I don't play," he threatened.

Because of Judge Webster's career, the couple had extra protection from law enforcement. But Webster said that even without threats of violence, the shame of being tricked can lead to tragic outcomes.

"I've heard of suicides, if you can imagine, people get so distraught, they've lost their life saving. They're embarrassed and they don't want to tell their children or their friends what happened and so they'll just take their lives," she said.

The Websters said they are speaking out because they want people to watch out for each other. Webster encourages younger people to reach out to seniors in their lives and make sure they're aware of the fraud that is out there. She also has some advice for seniors.

"Our advice is never, ever buy anything over the phone without giving it some hard thought. Thinking about it for two or three days or getting somebody in your family or your friends group to help you think it through to make sure it's legitimate. Most things on the phone today, that's just trouble. Just don't pick up the phone. If you're an older person, if you don't recognize the number on caller ID. And anybody trying to tell you something that needs to be bought immediately, it's likely a scam or just something you don't need to buy," she said.

Anyone who has been a victim of fraud, regardless of age, can contact the Internet Crime Complaint Center to report the crime.

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Steph Whiteside is a Digital Media News Specialist with WSIU radio in Carbondale, Ill. She previously worked as a general reporter at AJ+ and Current TV.
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