The scammers are winning.

Sophisticated overseas criminals are stealing tens of billions of dollars from Americans every year, a crime wave projected to get worse as the U.S. population ages and technology like AI makes it easier than ever to perpetrate fraud and get away with it.

Internet and telephone scams have grown “exponentially,” overwhelming police and prosecutors who catch and convict relatively few of the perpetrators, said Kathy Stokes, director of fraud prevention at AARP’s Fraud Watch Network.

Victims rarely get their money back, including older people who have lost life savings to romance scams, grandparent scams, technical support fraud and other common grifts.

“We are at a crisis level in fraud in society,” Stokes said. “So many people have joined the fray because it is pretty easy to be a criminal. They don’t have to follow any rules. And you can make a lot of money, and then there’s very little chance that you’re going to get caught.”

A recent case from Ohio, in which an 81-year-old man was targeted by a scammer and allegedly responded with violence, illustrates the law enforcement challenge.

Police say the man fatally shot an Uber driver after wrongly assuming she was in on a plot to extract $12,000 in supposed bond money for a relative. The driver fell victim to the same scammer, dispatched to the home midway between Dayton and Columbus to pick up a package for delivery, according to authorities.

Homeowner William Brock was charged with murder in the fatal March 25 shooting of Lo-Letha Hall, but the scammer who threatened Brock over the phone and set the tragic chain of events in motion remains on the loose more than three months later.

Brock pleaded not guilty, saying he was in fear for his life.

Advantage scammers

Online and telephone rackets have become so commonplace that law enforcement agencies and adult protective services don’t have the resources to keep up.

“It’s a little bit like drinking from a fire hose,” said Brady Finta, a former FBI agent who supervised elder fraud investigations. “There’s just so much of it, logistically and reasonably, it’s almost impossible to overcome right now.”

Grifts also can be difficult to investigate, particularly ones that originate overseas, with stolen funds quickly converted into hard-to-track cryptocurrency or siphoned into foreign bank accounts.

Some police departments don’t take financial scams as seriously as other crime and victims wind up discouraged and demoralized, according to Paul Greenwood, who spent 22 years prosecuting elder financial abuse cases in San Diego.

“There’s a lot of law enforcement who think that because a victim sends money voluntarily through gift cards or through wire transfers, or for buying crypto, that they’re actually engaging in a consensual transaction,” said Greenwood, who travels the country teaching police how to spot fraud. “And that is a big mistake because it’s not. It’s not consensual. They’ve been defrauded.”

Federal prosecutors typically don’t get involved unless the fraud reaches a certain dollar amount, Greenwood said.

The U.S. Justice Department says it does not impose a blanket monetary threshold for federal prosecution of elder financial abuse. But it confirmed that some of the 93 U.S. attorneys’ offices nationwide may set their own thresholds, giving priority to cases in which there are more victims or greater financial impact. Federal prosecutors file hundreds of elder fraud and abuse cases annually.

The Federal Trade Commission says the “vast majority” of frauds go unreported. Often, victims are reluctant to come forward.

A 74-year-old woman recently charged with robbing a credit union north of Cincinnati was the victim of an online scam, according to her family. Authorities say they believe the woman was preyed on by a scammer, yet there is no record she made a formal police report.

“These people are very good at what they do, and they’re very good at deceiving people and prying money out of them,” said Fairview Township, Ohio, police Sgt. Brandon McCroskey, who investigated the robbery. “I’ve seen people almost want to fist fight the police and bank tellers because they … believe in their mind that they need to get this money out.”

A devastating scheme

Older people hold more wealth as a group and present a ripe target for scammers. The impact can be devastating since many of these victims are past their working years and don’t have much time to recoup losses.

Elder fraud complaints to the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center rose by 14% last year, with losses increasing by 11% to $3.4 billion, according to a recent FBI report.

Other estimates put the annual loss much higher.

A 2023 AARP study calculated that Americans over 60 lose $28.3 billion each year to fraud. The Federal Trade Commission, seeking to account for unreported losses, estimated fraudsters stole a staggering $137 billion in 2022, including $48 billion from older adults. The authors of that study acknowledged a “considerable degree of uncertainty.”

In San Diego, 80-year-old William Bortz said criminals stole his family’s nest egg of almost $700,000 in an elaborate scheme involving a nonexistent Amazon order, a fake “refund processing center” in Hong Kong, doctored bank statements and an instruction that Bortz needed to “synchronize bank accounts” in order to get his money back.

Bortz’s scammer was relentless and persuasive, harassing him with dozens of phone calls and, at one point, taking control of his computer.

Even though he was the victim of a crime, Bortz struggles with self-blame.

“I understand now why so much elder abuse fraud is never reported. Because when you look back at it, you think, ‘How could I have been so stupid?’” said Bortz, who retired after a career in banking, financial services and real estate.

His daughter, Ave Williams, said local police and the FBI were diligent in trying to track down the overseas scammer and recover the money, but ran into multiple dead ends. The family blames Bortz’s bank, which Williams said ignored multiple red flags and facilitated several large wire transfers by her father over the course of eight days. The bank denied wrongdoing and the family’s lawsuit against it was dismissed.

“The scammers are getting better,” Williams said. ”We need our law enforcement to be given the tools they need, and we need our banks to get better because they are the first line of defense.”

The Justice Department contends industry needs to do more, saying the U.S. can’t prosecute its way out the problem.

“Private industry — including the tech, retail, banking, fintech, and telecommunications sectors — must make it harder for fraudsters to defraud victims and harder to launder victim proceeds,” the agency said in a statement to The Associated Press.

A way forward

Banking industry officials told a Senate subcommittee in May they are investing heavily in new technologies to stop fraud, “and some hold great promise.” The American Bankers Association says it’s working on a program to coordinate real-time communication among banks to better flag suspicious activity and reduce the flow of stolen funds.

But industry officials said the banks cannot singlehandedly prevent fraud. They said the U.S. needs an overarching national strategy to combat scammers, calling the federal government’s current efforts disjointed and uncoordinated.

Law enforcement agencies and industry need to join forces to fight fraud more quickly and efficiently, said Finta, the former FBI agent, who launched a nonprofit called the National Elder Fraud Coordination Center to cultivate better cooperation between law enforcement and major corporations like Walmart, Amazon and Google.

“There’s very, very smart people and there’s very powerful, wealthy companies that want this to stop,” he said. “So we do have the ability, I think, to make a greater impact and to help out our brothers and sisters in law enforcement that are struggling with this tsunami of fraud.”

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