“Just Hang Up”: Dan Rather Reports investigates the devastating impact of lottery and sweepstakes scams on seniors

They say “if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.” But saying something isn’t all that hard to do.

In theory, if a stranger reaches out to you and offers you the moon and stars out of nowhere, sure. It’s easy to say their promises probably come with a pretty big catch. After all, ain’t nothin’ free in this world.

But seasoned scam artists know you probably think that, so simply cold-calling, making the offer, and seeing who bites isn’t how they operate. Their challenge is to break through the wall of your common sense and good judgment by identifying the weak spots and chipping away until they gain entry.

They do this by selecting victims carefully and being willing to play a long game to gain trust and reap bigger rewards in time. Lottery scammers want lonely victims, victims who want to talk and trust, and victims who are likely to be in need extra funds. In most cases, this makes the ideal victim a senior.

Think about it: many seniors live alone, have few close friends, and limited contact with children and family members. Having few opportunities to sit and chat with someone, they’re likely to stay on the phone–and even more likely to share personal details and trust someone quickly.

These details and this trust are what the scammer needs to begin building a “relationship” with you. And it’s this relationship that makes the adage about looking gift horses in the mouth irrelevant–the scammer is just a helpful friend trying to give you a windfall of cash to help with medical and retirement expenses.

But once this trust is established, your “friend” will start asking you for money. To pay transfer fees. To pay taxes on your winnings. To pay for transporting your prize to your home. They’ll ask you to mail cash, to send Greendot or Visa gift cards, or wire money from your account.

And they’ll keep it going for as long as they can. The only thing you’ll ever receive from them are excuses–never your winnings.

Before a victim even realizes what happened, they’ve often lost thousands of dollars. In particularly heinous cases, seniors have lost their homes and nearly everything they’ve ever owned because of this scam.

In this three-part series from Dan Rather Reports, Rather and his team dive headfirst into the growing problem of senior lottery scamming. This investigation explores the lives of victims and confronts the lottery scammers face-to-face on their home turf.


Spotting an online scam: can you pass the quiz?

Home Instead Senior Care, the world’s largest in-home senior caregiving organization, recently launched a website focused on educating seniors and their families to recognize critical online scam red flags.

Just in time for tax season–a high traffic period for online scammers and identity thieves–Home Instead’s Protect Seniors Online offers visitors helpful resources regarding techniques to limit their vulnerability online and scammer strategies to watch out for as you browse websites, open emails, and post to social media.

And if you’d like to test your own knowledge of safe online navigation, you can take the website’s “Can You Spot an Online Scam” quiz.  It’s a 10-question test positing a series of common online scenarios–some safe, and some that should instantly set off alarm bells.  Your challenge is to differentiate the secure from the suspicious.

Check out this site if you want to learn more about how you can protect yourselves or your senior loved ones from online predators–and if you think you’ve got it all figured out, have a crack at the online scam quiz.  Let us know how you did!


During the biggest year for identity thieves in U.S. history, more Social Security numbers were stolen than credit card numbers for the first time

A brand new study conducted by Javelin Strategy and Research, reported by NBC News, revealed two discouraging facts about the ever-changing nature of cyber fraud and identity theft: thieves are increasingly able to adapt to attempts to thwart theft, and despite our best efforts, identity thieves are boasting more victims than ever before.

2017 marked an all-time high for identity theft. Approximately 16.7 million Americans fell prey to identity theft–the largest amount ever–with thieves pocketing around $16.8 billion in total. These crimes included using stolen credit card numbers to make online purchases, emptying bank accounts online, opening bogus Paypal accounts, and even stealing a victim’s reward points for shopping at certain merchants (IS NOTHING SACRED?).

In another first, theft via stolen Social Security numbers surpassed theft committed with stolen credit card numbers. This is largely due to the scope of this past summer’s Equifax breach.

But even without the disaster that created an all-you-can-eat buffet of our Social Security numbers, 2017’s identity theft trends suggest a larger shift in the way predators are targeting victims and using their data to steal.

With the gradual transition from traditional magnetic stripe bank cards to EMV or “chip” cards, point-of-sale skimming theft and duplicating physical cards has gotten a lot trickier.

This could be motivating many thieves to focus strictly on online transactions where a chip reader doesn’t come into play–or, better yet, stealing the identifying information needed to fraudulently open a card of their own.


Having access to a Social Security number opens up a world of opportunities to cash in on a victim. Not only does it allow a criminal to sidestep tighter security that prevents transactions with a stolen or fake credit card, it also offers them a broader variety of ways to steal from a victim–especially in ways that might not be immediately noticeable.

Consider the uptick in thieves using stolen Social Security numbers and identifying information to file for someone’s retirement benefits. While using this data to alter the bank information and reroute direct deposit payments might tip off a victim quickly, a thief filing for benefits prior to the victim filing himself could stand to collect a tidy sum before the theft was detected.

It seems with each step forward we take to combat widespread identity theft, the fraudsters react with lightning speed, adjusting their methods to keep the cash rolling in.

But knowing where the focus has shifted helps us on an individual level take better care with our security, especially when using our credit cards and personal information online. If we appreciate the increasing risk and know where and how thieves access our information, we can take measures to minimize the bull’s eye on our wallets:

  • Encrypt, encrypt, encrypt. Your emails. Your photos. Your messages. The financial information or documents you might store on your devices. Encrypt everything. There are multiple tools available–some open source and free-to-use–that will help you do this.
  • Use two-factor authentication when possible. This is when access to an account requires more steps than just entering a password. For example, many social media platforms allow you to require a password AND a pin number texted to a mobile phone before access to an account is granted.
  • Don’t use public Wi-Fi. Intercepting data over a public connection is a classic way for a thief to snatch your personal information–especially if you’re making purchases. Just don’t ever use public Wi-Fi.
  • Keep an eye on your bank accounts and credit report. Many of us don’t actively monitor our financial health until the time comes to make a serious financial decision. By then, the damage could be done. Make time to screen your bank transactions for suspicious activity. Take advantage of each year’s free credit report to make sure you don’t see anything fishy (this is especially important after the Equifax breach).

The important takeaway from this report is that we all take our own cyber security very seriously–we should be as vigilant about protecting our digital information as we would about leaving our purses and wallets unattended.

Don’t wait to protect yourself until after you’ve been affected.

Isolate, medicate, liquidate: senior “guardians” make millions by keeping seniors in a virtual prison

At face value, senior guardianship is a great concept with the wellbeing of seniors in mind. It’s a legal ruling appointing an individual as guardian for those experiencing physical or cognitive health problems.

This guardian is expected to do everything necessary to assist and maintain a healthy, safe lifestyle for whom he’s appointed to care, including taking care of their physical, mental, medicinal and financial needs. This is strictly meant for situations where an individual is unable to care for herself and would have a better quality of life if someone made decisions on her behalf.

A number of entities can petition the courts for appointment of a senior guardian. The senior herself could request the courts for a guardian or even her spouse, partner, friend, or relative.

There are several advantages that such a system brings. The senior’s children might live too far away to provide regular care. Appointing a guardian would provide constant support that these children may not be able to provide themselves.

Senior guardianship can also provide a secure support system for ad-hoc requirements, of both medical and non-medical nature. With the kind of nuclear family life that we now see, the sheltering umbrella of a house full of aunts and uncles, cousins and siblings is no longer available to many of us. A guardianship for parents who want their independence from children or who stay too far away for the children to be present at all times could be a godsend.

If truly enacted in the best interests of the senior, the guardianship system is a very useful thing that could improve the quality of life for many older Americans.

But the reality of senior guardianship is far from that ideal.

This well-intentioned law is often mercilessly exploited to line the pockets of guardians at the expense of the senior they’ve promised to protect. Most concerning are the requests that come from other agencies–not the individual or their family and friends–petitioning the courts to obtain an order for guardianship.

The crux of the concern is financial misappropriation might be the driving factor in someone taking over senior guardianship. Many seniors manage to save a tidy sum at the time of their retirement, and it’s this nest egg that’s often the target of those who claim to be a care-giving guardian for the senior. These guardians are given almost unlimited rights to make all financial decisions. They can even sell off property and other assets and keep the proceeds.

That is the magnet that attracts these so-called guardians to the frail and elderly. There are countless horror stories about guardians have stripping their wards of dignity, their physical and mental well-being, and their assets, leaving them in a worse state than when they took over guardianship.

When even family members don’t think twice about stabbing a relative in the back to gain financially, how much trust could one place on third parties that they will act only in the best interests of their wards?

And when it comes to determining who is and is not in need of a guardian, courts often rely on the word of “friends,” “family,” and those seeking to gain guardianship of an individual to make a guardianship determination.

At a certain age, a little bit of memory lapse and physical weakness are natural. But what if an unscrupulous agent uses these natural symptoms of aging against us to gain control of our lives, our belongings, and our finances? There have been far too many cases of seniors who have been diagnosed unfit to care for themselves based on the creative interpretation of these symptoms by an enterprising abuser.

So what happens when a predator successfully achieves guardianship over a senior victim?

Summarily handed a court order for guardianship, victims are asked to move at very short notice to places chosen by those guardians. Those places may seem to have several amenities, but they snatch away the independence and self-respect of the seniors placed there.

Their lifestyle is changed to fit in with the guardian’s schedule, their medications may be changed to their detriment, and contact with their children and other family members could be strictly regulated to prevent the victim’s family or loved ones from sniffing out the abuse–and to keep the victim totally dependent on the abuser.

Some of the biggest blows victims receive are on the financial front. The court order allows the guardian to charge their fees from the estates of the wards, allowing bad guardians to make excessive additions to their “fees” and withdrawal unseemly amounts of money from the victim’s estate. They’ve even been known to bill their victims for telephone calls or face-to-face conversations as extra “patient care.” The victim’s assets are often sold off under the guise of taking care of the financial interests of the ward.

Sometimes senior guardianship is a ruse used by family members to wrest control of the victim’s finances. Family disputes have long been a part of our society, and senior guardianship sadly provides the perfect tool for families to settle personal scores or usurp financial control of properties and assets.

Do the family of the ward or the wards themselves have any recourse to correct these wrongs, either legal or otherwise? In theory, yes. But courts generally tend to take the view that the guardian appointment is the last recourse, and any change from that arrangement would be to the detriment of the ward.

So, an appeal usually has the opposite effect, and instead of agreeing to revoke the senior guardian, the courts usually ask the sheriff or a similar authority figure to take steps to ensure that the legal guardian is given all access and cooperation.

Thankfully there are many organizations pooling their resources to fight this often unjust system., involving citizens, activists, and judges working to ensure senior guardianships are not awarded under false pretenses.

But it’s an uphill battle. The guardianship industry is well entrenched, and with so many people involved in the process–judges, advocates, medical practitioners, special care professionals, pathological labs, even law enforcement agencies–there’s a lot of room for abuse and plenty of places for someone with an impactful role in influencing a judge’s decision to drop the ball.

Personal bias, complete misinterpretation of a senior’s behaviors, or a failure to recognize the signs of a potentially exploitative situation can and do occur at every level of diagnosing and determining a person’s need for a guardianship.

The situation can sound hopeless, but all is not lost yet. There are ways this type of abuse can be controlled, if not uprooted altogether. There are three ways to combat guardianship exploitation: judicial activism, proactive documentary awareness, and family support.

Judiciary awareness: A special set of judges are appointed for deciding guardianship cases. These judges get elected to office and are re-elected at the end of their term–and one need not look far for information about how their judges handle cases like these.

It’s the responsibility of each state’s citizens to be aware of who their judges are and what their reputations may be regarding issues of senior guardianship (and any issue, for that matter). Ultimately, these judges are beholden to all of us to exercise their authority in a satisfactory manner.

Should a judge be lacking in their duties to suss out predators and issue fair rulings on matters related to seniors, no one who believes in protecting the rights of seniors should ever be willing to vote for him. Stay involved, stay aware, and be willing to exercise your rights to ensure those charged with making serious decisions for citizens in your state are the right candidates for the job.

Documentary awareness: Several organizations are pushing their senators and judiciary to do away with state laws allowing unlimited rights to senior guardians. But that’s like trying to correct a wrong already done.

There are some things that an individual can choose to do in advance before he may need a senior guardian. That includes several documents that the he can have created prior to the onset of any health problems. A basic will specifying all the assets and how they are to be distributed after death can also contain certain clauses regarding who would be authorized to take financial and other decisions even before death.

There are documents like medical power of attorney, joint ownership of assets, trust funds, and even documents that can safeguard the passwords for important files or for computers and phones. The individual could also enter into a written agreement to co-opt someone whom he trusts to provide supported decision-making for important issues.

Like a medical power of attorney, an agreement could also be entered into to designate a particular person for geriatric care.

But the difference between these documents and the senior guardianship granted by courts is the guardianship is often granted ex-parte (in the absence of the ward), whereas these other documents are initiated by the individual himself, so they can’t be imposed on the individual by a court.

Family support: As with any senior abuse, the whole family should stand united to protect itself against unwanted senior guardianship rulings.

People should be not only visiting their parents often, but must be documented doing so. Records must be created of their visits or by having witnesses while visiting. Any doctor visit for any of the usual age-related problems should be made in the company of children or other relatives, and careful attention must be paid to what the doctor is writing in his diagnosis or prescription.

Any kind of loose talk in front of third parties (like “my Dad really seems to be losing it,” for example) should be avoided–off-the-cuff remarks made in jest have been quoted out of context in guardianship courtrooms to prove that a senior really needs help.

As long as the judges and all the authorities in this vicious cycle continue to turn their heads the other way, seniors will continue to live under the threat of losing their good health, mental peace, and financial freedom to the guardianship industry.

While this lobby seems to have spread its tentacles well and truly around our society, there is light ahead. Awareness of this legal loot is increasing, and people are waking up to the dangers of the senior guardianship system. It’s incumbent on us, who have understood the real face of senior guardianship, to educate others who still labor under the impression of its benefits to older Americans.

Court-Appointed “Guardians” Put Seniors In Assisted Living, Take Over Assets

The New Yorker has a devastating article about the Guardianship Business in Nevada where Court-appointed “guardians” are able to take control of the lives of older people, selling their assets and moving them into assisted living.

“The scheme is ingenious,” she told me. “How do you come up with a crime that literally none of the victims can articulate without sounding like they’re nuts? The same insane allegations keep surfacing from people who don’t know each other.”

Wisconsin’s DATCP offers seniors comprehensive guide to scam protection

Navigating the sadly wide world of financial fraud and scam techniques used by thieves to exploit seniors is tough.

Senior scammers have branched out to every method of communication, embedded themselves into many different industries, and use wildly creative tactics to convince their victims to hand over cash and information.

But organizations looking to help, like Wisconsin’s Department of Agriculture Trade and Consumer Protection, offer these extremely useful consumer protection guides to seniors.

The DATCP’s guide catalogs the numerous ways a senior scammer might try to get to you and everyday things we can all do to protect ourselves from these strategies.

While the guide goes into the particulars of Wisconsin law and how resident seniors can pursue complaints, most of the information inside is relevant to seniors across the country.

You can view the entire Wisconsin DATCP Senior Guide below.


Using your position to steal Social Security money from clients is wrong. Sending a selfie with the money you stole to your ex? That’s just stupid.


Pro-tip to all would-be criminals out there: the best way to avoid being caught for financial fraud is not assisting in your own investigation.

Charlotte Social Security representative Oliver Montgomery’s job was to help Social Security beneficiaries receive their benefit payments.

Instead, he helped himself to their “missing” money.

Over the course of one year, federal investigators estimate Montgomery stole as much as $37,000 of Social Security money from his clients— all while on the Social Security Administration clock and the taxpayer dime.

Social Security fraud is a lucrative business, but we tend to focus on false claims, identity theft, and family members or caretakers fraudulently collecting the benefits of a sick or deceased family member. We rarely consider Social Security fraud is a crime that can be committed from within just as easily as on the outside.

No one can say how long Montgomery could have abused his position and maintained this theft, but luckily for us, one incredibly stupid decision cut his 12-month side job short.

In an argument over a debt owed to his ex-girlfriend, Montgomery apparently decided it would be a good idea to rub his wealth in her face while refusing to pay the debt.

After she threatened to collect the money in court, he took a picture of himself at his Social Security office desk with a large amount of cash and the text message, “show them that stack on my desk.”


Well. She did.

Montgomery’s ex-girlfriend contacted federal officials and reported the text. Investigators then concluded Montgomery had been changing his clients’ bank information and redirecting back Social Security payments into his own account.

In another case, he’d altered the release details of a prison inmate to make him eligible for back payments that Montgomery would then redirect to himself.

And he might have gotten away with it if it wasn’t for that pesky selfie…

You know what they say about karma.