BREVARD COUNTY, Fla. – For five hours, an elderly woman sat in her car crying and holding her cellphone to her ear.
Brevard County Sheriff’s Detective Sgt. Jackie Hearon said the woman thought she had to stay on the phone because the caller said they were a deputy.
"Because she believed she was going to be arrested, and figured she better stay there," Hearon said. "She figured they have the authority to hold her there."
The person on the other end of the phone was pretending to be a Brevard County Sheriff’s deputy, threatening to arrest the senior for not paying a fine.
“This is a government scam,” Hearon said. “The scammer calls, says that you failed to show up for jury (duty) or warrant for your arrest or failure to submit to DNA test. And they say you can avoid going to jail today if you pay the fines.”
The caller ordered the woman to drive to a store and purchase $2,000 in MoneyPak prepaid cash cards and then drive to the Sheriff’s Office building to read off the numbers on the gift cards.
Hearon said the caller sent the woman to a Sheriff’s Office administrative building that did not house deputies.
“The scammers knew this was an address of the Brevard County Sheriff’s Office, sent her directly to the Sheriff’s Office and had her sit there for five hours,” Hearon said. “This was how he legitimized his scam. And that way, he was able to scam her out of $2,000 in MoneyPak cards... believing the whole time that he was a sheriff’s deputy.”
No one noticed the woman while she sat parked in front of the building for five hours while the scammer kept her on the phone until the last dollar transferred from the MoneyPak card into his account.
“It’s very insulting because the entire time we were searching for her, trying to find where she was,” Hearon said. “Her family had placed her in missing. She was so terrified to click over and answer the phone [when they called].”
Hearon said this was only the latest egregious elderly scam reported to the Brevard County Sheriff’s Office.
The Brevard County Sheriff’s Office Economic Crimes Unit gets upwards of 100 reports per month of elderly citizens who have been scammed, and that number continues to grow every day.
Scam artists can easily determine a person’s age and send out fake threatening robocalls instructing the would-be victim to call back. Deputies said the scam starts as soon as the person calls back.
Residents in one senior community in Titusville field dozens of scam calls a day.
Few scammers are ever arrested because they can’t be found or can’t be arrested in some other country, so detectives now focus more on stopping the flow of money.
"We had to change the way we approached these types of cases," Hearon said.
Hearon said if they can stop seniors from sending money, they can put the scammers out of business.
Detectives at the Economic Crimes Unit have started meeting with retailers and teaching clerks how to spot a senior in trouble and a scam in progress.
“We’re going to any retailer selling MoneyPak cards, Green Dot cards, prepaid Visas, those types of cards used for scams,” Hearon said. “Clerks are coming into contact with our elderly victims, normally they’re on the phone. They’re being held hostage on the phone, so we’re hoping the clerk can intervene and say, ‘Do you know the person on the phone?’ or call law enforcement.”
Hearon said stores are starting to question seniors who may seem upset on the phone or buying large amounts of gift cards.
Walmart said it is training clerks to recognize possible scam victims purchasing gift cards.
Florida Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis said banks are, too.
“We’re not only seeing (it) with our retailers, we’re seeing it also with our financial brokers. They’re advocating because a senior comes forward and says, ‘I need to pull $15,000 out,’ and these money managers are saying, ‘You know what? You’re being scammed,’ but it’s their money,” Patronis said. “So it’s that delicate balance of making sure we’re not standing in the way of making sure someone is getting access to their money, but hopefully protecting them from a scam that they literally will see their dollars evaporate.”
Hearon said if they find out about a scam quickly enough, they can freeze bank accounts to stop the flow of money.
Hearon said many of the elderly scam victims are isolated and don’t have the support or advice of neighbors and family. She encouraged people to check on their neighbors, talk to them and warn them about scams.
Hearon also said shoppers should be aware the next time they’re in line at the store and see an elderly person on the phone purchasing gift cards.
“We’ve got to get everyone involved. We have to get the clerks, the bank tellers, our community involved,” Hearon said.
Hearon said gift card vendors also have to take responsibility by placing warnings on the kiosks and cards advising people not to purchase them if they don’t know for whom they’re buying.
Patronis set up a website to report scams immediately.
Walmart has also created a web page offering information to spot and avoid scams.