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Sweepstakes Shysters Preying on Retired, Elderly

Terrytown resident Frances Frystak is a member of a group that she would rather not be associated with: Fran is one of a growing number of older Americans who have been ripped off by the allure of riches promised by fraudulent companies promoting sweepstakes winnings and other get-rich-quick schemes.

Roughly 40,000 people nationwide are tricked each year by lottery and sweepstakes crooks. The actual number is likely much higher, consumer advocates say, because so many cases go unreported.

Scams baited with foreign lottery and sweepstakes winnings are decades old. But after years of declines, the number of complaints to law-enforcement agencies nationwide is rising at an alarming rate.

Some experts cite the bad economy, saying people are easier to sway when money is tight. Since December, Frances has lost over $20,000. She's written checks to cover the costs of getting money she's been told that she's already won but needs to pay taxes and other fees before the money is sent to her.

The checks with her winnings never show up. Now Fran's family has taken away her checkbook. "I'm embarrassed about this, but want others to know how easily it can happen," she says. "You really think you've won big money."

Frances and her late husband, Stanley, were once owners of Wyalusing's Edgefield Court Motel, which was razed to make room for Peoples State Bank's Route 6 office. They were active and well-known members of the community. Stanley was a former fire chief and Frances was also active in the fire company.

Seniors seem especially susceptible to fraudulent offers for prize promotions, lottery clubs, charitable solicitations and investment offers, and account for 60 percent of the fraud victims who call the National Consumers League's National Fraud Information Center (NCLNFIC).

Most seniors are available for midday calls and have no suspicious children around to intervene. Every single day there are thousands of cases of elderly people being scammed by home services, defrauded by caregivers, exploited by neighbors or family members or tricked by unscrupulous salespeople. Victims commonly receive five or more calls a day from high-pressure telephone sales people once they make their first purchase or contribution.

While this interview was being conducted, Frances received a phone call from a man in Spain regarding a check that was supposed to have been sent to her but was not. She was told that the check for $1,300,000 was too large an amount to ship via UPS and would be sent in smaller amounts instead.

"I hope this doesn't come between me and my family," Fran says. Actually, it was the excitement of giving her anticipated winnings to her family that kept Fran an active player in the sweepstakes fraud. And despite the money she's already lost, Fran admits that she's still tempted by the chance to recoup her losses.

People generally think of senior scam victims as being frail or very elderly, but that is not always the case. It is often someone that is outgoing, has many ties in the community, someone that's well educated and someone that has some money. But they are also very trusting and feel the salesperson could just as easily be their grandchild on the phone trying to make a living. Many of the victims come from a time when a person's word could be trusted.

One AARP-sponsored survey shows that older people who fall for telemarketing scams tend to believe the pitches they hear, that they have a good chance of actually winning the grand prize and that the products touted are worth the price charged for them.

Ninety percent of survey respondents report awareness of consumer fraud,yet two-thirds said it is hard to spot fraud when it is happening. Even after the fact, they generally feel that they were not cheated or robbed but that they just didn't get their money's worth. The survey also showed that elderly victims find it difficult to terminate telephone conversations, even when they say they are not interested in continuing a conversation They fail to associate the pleasant voice with a criminal trying to steal their money and do not realize that scammers are not just sleazy salespeople trying to make a living.

Often senior citizen scam victims are caught in a downward spiral of repeated victimization as they grow increasingly desperate to recoup their losses. They dread revealing the full extent of their losses, fearing that their last measure of independence will be taken away from them by their well-meaning children.

The elderly are not only more susceptible, they tend to be more seriously affected when they are victimized and do not have the time or opportunity for financial recovery; their prime earning years are behind them.

As senior citizens lose their savings, go into debt, mortgage property or take out credit card advances to pay those exploiting them, even comfortable lifestyles can collapse from the financial strain. Some victims, according to the NCLNFIC have lost their homes or been forced to sell them to meet day-to-day living expenses. The impact of fraud on senior citizens can be life shattering.

Fraudulent telemarketers not only rob their victims of their hard-earned money, but also of their human dignity. Senior citizens victimized by fraud tend to feel isolated, depressed, angry and ashamed.

"They've taken away my pride," Frances says. "I even called the police and they came to my house and said there's really nothing they can do."

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