Our golden generation, rich with wisdom and experience, unfortunately often finds itself in the crosshairs of deceitful schemes. In today’s episode, we shine a spotlight on the tactics employed by scammers, share real-life anecdotes, and provide practical advice to help safeguard our beloved seniors.
Today’s guest is Joyce Petrowski. Joyce started her professional career in the public accounting sector and is an accountant and tax preparer. As an avid volunteer and philanthropist, she shares her focus on the non-profit sector and co-founded a non-profit in 2014. Since leaving that non-profit in 2021, she saw a need to educate people, especially the older adult population about the financial scams and how to protect themselves and their hard earned assets. In August 2021, Joyce founded R.O.S.E. (Resources/Outreach to Safeguard the Elderly), with the mission to prevent financial exploitation and frauding older adults through advocacy and education.“Think about what’s going on. If you’re not sure, talk to somebody else that you know and trust. Them asking questions might help you determine if it is a scam.” - Joyce Petrowski Click To Tweet
- [1:16] – Joyce shares her background and the mission of her non-profit, R.O.S.E.
- [3:42] – R.O.S.E. provides education and resources for older adults so they are aware of how these scams are happening.
- [5:54] – When speaking and meeting with people, Joyce sees the hesitation in people coming forward with past experiences with scams.
- [8:01] – It has been difficult for the general population, specifically the older generation, to keep up with the evolution of scams and red flags.
- [9:38] – The first sign that should raise some suspicion is unexpected contact.
- [12:07] – There is an option in your phone that can silence calls from unknown numbers so there is no accidentally answering scam calls.
- [15:03] – If you’re not sure, talk to somebody else that you know and trust. Them asking questions might help you determine if it is a scam.
- [18:51] – Many older adults feel uncomfortable sharing their experiences with their children to avoid losing their independence.
- [21:18] – Scammers don’t discriminate. They don’t care about age, gender, or even how much money you have.
- [23:34] – It can be very confusing and overwhelming when considering the ways to deal with this problem.
- [26:00] – Joyce shares some of the things that scammers are looking for and why it can be easy for them to get a victim into an emotional state.
- [29:44] – Scams are very sophisticated now compared to just ten years ago.
- [31:45] – Everybody needs to be aware and have conversations about this with the older adults in their lives.
- [33:17] – Joyce has recently started a podcast called Let’s Talk About Scams.
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- Let’s Talk About Scams Podcast
Joyce, thank you so much for coming on the Easy Prey Podcast today.
You're welcome. Thank you for inviting me.
You're welcome. Can you give myself and the audience a little bit of background about who you are and what you do?
My name's Joyce Petrowski, and I have a non-profit called ROSE. It stands for Resources Outreach to Safeguard the Elderly. Our mission is to prevent the financial exploitation and defrauding of older adults through advocacy and education. We bring education and awareness on the frauds and scams that are out there targeting these older adults.
Our program is comprehensive as compared to a lot of other programs, where we have actionable resources, tips, and tools that we go over, and then they take that information home with them. As you know, it's not one size fits all. Not every protection resource works for everybody, so they can make a determination as to what they want to implement.
Awesome. How did you get into this field?
I actually had just left, in April of ’21, a non-profit that I co-founded back in 2014. I was really not looking to start another non-profit. I was like, “I'm going to rest. I'm just going to relax for a little while.” I had heard about a loved one of mine who was involved in a romance scam, started to get some more information about it, and how difficult it was to break that absolute trust.
The loved one had lost some money, but not all of their life savings, which was great. I started doing some research on scams. I knew they were out there, but I just never really paid attention to them. I started doing a lot of research, and I just saw how crazy this has gotten.
I talked to a lot of people. I'm like, “You know what? If you guys have a handle on this, I don't need to start something.” They were like, “Oh, my gosh. It's gone out of control. We could use all the help we can get.” I'm like, “All right. I'll start another non-profit.”
In August of ’21, ROSE was founded. It's based solely on providing the older adults this information that they need so they're aware of what's going on with these scams and more apt to be able to recognize it, but then also giving them the tools they need so they know how to protect themselves.
Is your organization meeting with adults in person, or is this online?
No, we actually go in person. I thought about that, because with the pandemic—it really brought Zoom and all these other online platforms. I think a lot of people realized, “Hey, I can do these meetings online.” But I just felt this is such a sensitive topic that doing it in person, you'd be able to create more trust with people and have that personal connection with them.
The majority of our presentations are in person, but we do some over Zoom. It really depends on the audience and how they think they're best suited to get the information.
This is me asking questions about the organization because I'm really curious. Are you going out to senior centers, retirement homes, churches? How are these facilitated?
All of the above. We go out to senior centers, 55+ communities, churches, independent and assisted living. We're here in Phoenix, Arizona. Arizona has one of the largest populations, I believe, of 55+ communities, and just retired people in general. Really anywhere that we can get the audience of our target market.
In 2024, we're working to implement a program to reach the adult children of these older adults. They're called the sandwich generation because they're caring for their older adult loved ones, but then they have kids of their own they're caring for. So to just encourage them to start the conversation and keep the conversation going.
I'm curious. When you're meeting with people in person, do you poll the group to find out, has your audience been scammed, or have they been approached for scams? Is that part of your process?
I actually thought about that. I've had to catch myself a couple of times when I have done some presentations. I don't believe people are going to be comfortable, right off the bat, raising their hand and saying, “Yes, I've been scammed, and I lost this much money.” If we do ask that question, it's more of, “Do you know anybody that's been scammed?”
As we're going through the presentation and talking about different scams, we're hoping that the audience is going to be interactive and they're going to ask questions. Sometimes during those questions, it comes out that they know somebody that's been scammed, this is what happened, and then we talk about it to see where the red flags were and stuff like that.
It's the infamous, “I have this friend….”
Yeah. Sometimes it's them; other times, it is truly a friend.
The retirement communities—the members of the community, not necessarily the people that are running the community—do you find that they're fairly aware that the scams are going on? Or is this an introduction to this for them?
My interpretation is that a lot of them are aware of scams. “Oh, I've gotten that email.” or, “Oh, I've gotten that phone call,” but they don't realize to what depth these scammers are going and the inner workings.
Twenty-five years ago, it was that you get the email with the bad grammar and it's a scam. You get the phone call, and it's somebody from another country. It's a scam. Nowadays, you can't rely on that, because scammers are extremely savvy and tech smart. Showing them, “You take the techniques from this romance scam, you add techniques from an investment scam, and now you have a pig-butchering scam.”Twenty-five years ago, it was that you get the email with the bad grammar and it's a scam. You get the phone call, and it's somebody from another country. It's a scam. Nowadays, you can't rely on that, because scammers are… Click To Tweet
They found out that everybody caught on about the IRS scams that you owe money, so now they're actually saying, “If you don't pay, you're going to get a call from the police because there'll be a warrant out for your arrest.” Then the next phone call you get is they're saying they're from that police department, and they have a warrant for your arrest, just along the way to make it seem more believable.
It's always amazing that the challenge with what you and I do is that these scams evolve at such a fast pace that you can't necessarily say, “Watch out for this word or this phrase.” You have to talk more about the concepts and the mechanisms behind the scams as opposed to the specifics of it.
Even though we're recording in early January, by the time that this episode gets published, there'll be a new scam. It won't be Amazon gift cards or Apple gift cards, it'll be something else.
It will be. Unfortunately, you're right. There'll be something else out there.
Let's talk about some of those mechanisms. What are some of the, not the specific word red flags to watch out for but the conceptual red flags that people should be watching out for?
There are a fair amount of scams that are initiated through email, or they might start on a text message or a phone call, but then it goes to email. The first thing is that unexpected contact. Was I expecting an email from my bank? Was I expecting this email from whoever it is or whatever company it is? It should always raise some suspicion when it's unexpected.The first thing is that unexpected contact. Was I expecting an email from my bank? Was I expecting this email from whoever it is or whatever company it is? It should always raise some suspicion when it's unexpected. -Joyce… Click To Tweet
If you just go up and hover over the sender's name, it'll show you the actual email address. That's where you’ve got to look at it, but you can't just look at it now and say, “Oh, it is from Amazon,” because the scammers have caught on to that. Now they're taking a letter and changing it to a number, or vice versa, a lowercase to an uppercase. As you're looking at it, your naked eye in your mind is reading Amazon because that's what you think it is, but when really it's not. There's a little change.
We've suggested to people, anything to the right of that @ sign, just get a piece of paper and write down every character, every symbol, every number, the way it is on there. Then your mind's going to read that character, and then you can look at it on the piece of paper. “OK, well, that's not how you spell Amazon. It's not ‘rn’ to make an m.” Just a way to slow down and look at that.
They call you on the phone—again, unexpected contact. If you don't know the phone number that's coming in—because scammers, as I'm sure you know, can spoof the caller ID and make it look like it's coming from somebody you know, but the actual phone number is not the right phone number—just don't answer.
That's a lot easier said than done. When I get a call and there's no name on it, it's just a number and it's like, “Do I want to answer this?” sometimes I'll find myself just answering it. It's hard.
There's a thing called silence unknown callers, and it's in your phone settings. I'm sure you're aware of it. It's in both Android and Apple phone settings, and you can turn it on. Your phone won't even ring, unless that phone number is in your contacts.
I've had some people say, “Well, that's great, but I miss my doctor's calls because they always have four or five different back office lines.” It's like, “OK, well, if you're expecting that call from your doctor, turn it off, and then you get the call, turn it back on.”
I actually had one lady say, “The phone number's in my call history and they left me a voicemail, so I took that number and I put it in my doctor's contact list. I added it as a phone number so then when they call from that number, it'll ring through.”
It was funny. I was recently traveling. I'm one of those people who answer it because I'm always curious what the scam currently is and what they're trying to do. I was going on vacation and it was right at one of those upticks. The calls seem to come in waves. At that point, it was a dozen calls a day. I'm like, “I'm on vacation; I don't want to deal with this.”
I turned on the silent unknown callers. I'm like, “Oh, this is great. I can enjoy my vacation.” I got home. I was having a tech support issue and had to call a company. They're like, “We'll do some research and we'll give you a call back. We'll call you back in a couple of minutes,” and 15 or 20 minutes goes by and I haven't gotten a call back.
I looked down at my phone and I realized, “Oh, the phone number wasn't in my address book.” There are multiple messages from this poor guy saying, “I was just talking to you 30 seconds ago. I've got the answer for you. Call me back to this extension.” It does take some effort to remember when to turn it on and off when you're doing that.
That was always my concern. Some appointment that I've made is going to call me at some number that I don't recognize. That's always been my excuse, but I've put it back to silence unknown callers and my day is a whole lot more productive now.
I bet. At some point, you'll probably be like, “Is my phone broken? It's not ringing. I'm not getting any calls.”
The scammers have all stopped. No, you're just not talking to them anymore.
OK. We've got the unexpected contact, whether it's by phone or by email and the advice to slow down. What other mechanisms should we be looking at?
Email and phone are big. They've been around for a long time. You just said it: slow down. No matter how the contact comes and with all of the technology today, it can come through social media. It can come through when you play online games where you're actually talking to people. If you're on a dating site. Basically anything that's connected to the Internet.You just have to slow down and think about what's going on. If you're not sure, talk to somebody else that you know and trust, because maybe with them asking questions, it might help you determine that, “OK, yeah. This really is a… Click To Tweet
WhatsApp, those message apps, you can get the contact through there. You just have to slow down and think about what's going on. If you're not sure, talk to somebody else that you know and trust, because maybe with them asking questions, it might help you determine that, “OK, yeah. This really is a scam. I'm not going to respond to it.”
The scammers are going to try to get you into that emotional state, whatever emotion it is. They want to keep you in that state, because you're more apt to act on what they want you to do and say if you're in that emotional state.The scammers are going to try to get you into that emotional state, whatever emotion it is. They want to keep you in that state, because you're more apt to act on what they want you to do and say if you're in that emotional state.… Click To Tweet
I was just talking to a lady this morning. She had said she'd had her Facebook account for 10 or 15 years and someone cloned it and started sending messages to all of her friends and family members on there.
It wasn't until her brother-in-law or something called her and said, “Hey, how much longer are you going to need our financial help because we don't know how much longer we're going to be able to do this.” She's like, “What are you talking about?” He's like, “I've been sending you money every month for the last three months.” She's like, “No, you haven’t.”
That's another thing that they do. They play on that emotion of, “Well, sure, I'm going to help my loved one, whatever they need.” Him calling her was his way to verify, even though that wasn't what he was initially doing. But somebody asking you for money, call him from that verified phone number and just say, “Hey, what's going on? Why do you need this money?” And find out.
I had that happen recently, where someone that I worked with 20 years ago, and we were connected on Facebook. We've seen each other's posts. We've probably not had a conversation in at least five years. I get a message from him on Facebook saying, “Hey, how's it going?” It was just an odd outreach, but it was like, “How's it going?”
He hasn't reached out to me in years. This is a little too personal of an intro. “How's it going, buddy,” or something like that, which is not the words that he would use and not something you would use when you haven't talked to someone in years. My red flags go off. I'm like, anytime I get contacted from someone that I don't normally interact with.
Yeah. This lady that I talked to this morning, she said, in the messages, they were saying that she and her son needed financial help. She was like, “The one thing is that I never refer to my son as my son. I refer to him by his name.” Nobody had caught on to that, which I don't know that most people would catch on to, because their mind is, “Oh, my gosh. I need to help.”
Mom needs help, aunt needs help, someone needs help.
You were talking about talking to somebody when things happen and things seem suspicious. Do you find that the older adults living in these retirement communities are reluctant to talk to their children about these things? Because there's a little bit of the, “I'm the adult. I shouldn't have to talk to my kids about my finances.” A little bit of this fear of, “I don't want to lose my autonomy or my independence. If I tell them about this, they're going to see it as a sign for me to try to take away my independence,” so to speak?
I think that's more common than we think it is. I try to put myself in their shoes. If I'm afraid I'm going to lose my independence, I might not say anything, which is why we get this program started for the adult children of the older adults. It'll be able to have them start that conversation and keep that conversation going.
When that older adult family member or friend has a question or wants to talk to them, they're going to feel comfortable because they've been having this conversation for months or years. They're going to be less afraid that they're going to have their independence taken away because they've been having this conversation. It's just part of the normal weekly, however often they talk.
Do the older adults want to have these conversations with their peers as opposed to their kids? Or do they just not want to have the conversations at all? Or do they want to have the conversations?
If I had to venture a guess on that, because that's what it's going to be, is that they probably would rather talk to their peers about it. They might be thinking, “Well, maybe this has happened to them,” or, “I need to let them know about this so it doesn't happen to them,” or there are going to be some people that are just going to be like, “I don't want anybody to know about this. I want to move forward. I want to put it behind me, and I just don't even want to think about it anymore.” So they're not going to tell anybody. They're not going to report it, either.
Do you think that's one of the challenges that this age group doesn't want to report, again, for that fear of losing their independence and the perception of shame associated with it?
Absolutely. No shame at all, because really anybody is susceptible to being scammed. In my conversation this morning, scammers don't discriminate. “I only want to know the top 20 percent wealthiest people in this age group because I'm going to focus on them.”
It doesn't matter if you have money, you don't have money. They figured out ways to get money from people that don't have money. They're not discriminating on age. They're just throwing it out there, hoping that they get 1% that's going to engage and respond to them.It doesn't matter if you have money, you don't have money. They figured out ways to get money from people that don't have money. They're not discriminating on age. They're just throwing it out there, hoping that they get 1% that's… Click To Tweet
There has been some statistics out there that they're thinking maybe about 15%–20% of the older adults actually report. There are a variety of different reasons. Again, it's that perception of shame. They might lose their independence. There are just a lot of different emotions that go into that as well.
Probably a certain amount of, “Even if I report it, I'm not going to get my money back, so why would I even bother reporting it?”
Exactly. I've heard some people actually suggest that to other people. While I understand where they're coming from, the other side of it is your scenario could be the missing link that law enforcement needs to actually make this case, because 99.9% of the time, you are not the only one that has fallen victim to this same scammer, the same scam. The more information that law enforcement has, the better chance they can find these people.
Yes, there's a very slim chance that you're going to get your money back. But if the people can be found and caught, that's going to save other people from falling victim to that scammer.
And law enforcement doesn't know what they don't know. If they don't know the crime is happening, they don't know what resources should be dedicated towards how many investigators they should have if no one takes the time to report stuff.
Sometimes I think it might be confusing for some of the older adults. If you think about it—I'm one of the baby boomers; I'm at the tail end of it—we didn't grow up with technology. We didn't grow up with cell phones, computers, and all of this technology.
While some of us have learned very well how to use the technologies, others haven't. It might be confusing for them because if you google how to report a scam, you're going to get so many different ways to report. It's like, “Do I have to do all of these? What's the best one to do? Do I have to do it federal? Do I go to the state?”
That's one of the things that I wish we could take all of these places and just say, “You know what? There's going to be one place that you're going to report it to, and that place is going to disseminate it where it needs to go for law enforcement.” Maybe that'll happen someday.
That would be nice if that happens, because I feel that challenge of when someone asks me, “Hey, for those that even want to take the time to report it, where do I report it? Who do I report it to?” It's, “Well, OK. Tell me more about what happened. OK. Well, maybe your bank, your local….” and it starts getting complicated, depending on what happened.
Do I go to the bank? Do I go to local law enforcement? Do I go to county law enforcement? Do I go to the FBI? Do I report it to the attorney generals? Do I report it to the IC3? Do I report it to the Federal Trade Commission? That's half dozen of them right there.
And if it was a virtual theft, “Well, it didn't happen in my jurisdiction, so why would I report it to my local law enforcement?” They're going to go, “Well, I don't know.”
You’ve got to go to the jurisdiction and it's like, “Well, I don't know where they're from.”
They could be anywhere in the world.
It's definitely one of the challenges. You also talked about the scammers hooking our emotions. What are some of the emotions that they're trying to get us? What emotional states are they trying to trigger in us?
Let's look at a romance scam. They find somebody who has been recently widowed, and they're in the grieving process, or they find somebody that's just single that their spouse has been gone for a long time, but they're looking for a partner for the rest of their life. They're looking for that love.
They can get them into that emotional state of, “I've got somebody that I'm in love with and we're going to be together for the rest of our lives.” That's that emotion and that absolute trust that's really hard to break.
Now, the government scams like the Social Security, the IRS, and Medicare, “If you don't pay this right now, you're going to go to jail for not paying your taxes.” So, fear. “Your Social Security account is going to get locked if you don't pay this.” Or, “Your Medicare account is going to get locked.” That scares people.
When you're in an emotional state, you're not necessarily thinking rationally. When we say we have that trusted person that you can talk to, that trusted person is not in that emotional state with you. By asking you questions, talking you through the situation, they can help you determine, “OK, is this really a scam? Does this make sense? Does this seem too good to be true?”
There's the sweepstakes. “I've won the lottery. I've won this car.” They call it greed, and I don't know that I really like the word greed because nobody likes to be referred to as greedy. What it just means is that, “I'm going to do this because I want that prize. I want that money, that cash payout. I want that car” type thing. Maybe they'll come up with a different terminology for that one.
There you go. From that long lost relative in another country that you've never heard of.
With a different name.
Yes, but there's also isolation if you live by yourself. This happened a lot during the pandemic. People couldn't go visit each other. If you didn't have the capabilities or didn't understand how Zoom worked and all of that, you were more willing to answer that phone, get into conversations, and start talking to people that you didn't stop to think, “Wait a minute. Why am I talking to this person? I've never met them.” You didn't feel isolated anymore. That's a big one as well.
The isolation one is the one that always concerns me the most—people that are already isolated in and of themselves, or when the scammer is trying to isolate them from their friends, family, and their trusted network.
Exactly, and they're really good at that. They are really good at that.
“They don't love you the way I love you” and all that.
I think they all must have a psychologist on staff. They just seem to always know the right thing to say to keep the person in that frame of mind that they want them in.
I suspect it's a lot of trial and error and sharing your playbook with your co-conspirators.
Right. Just look at how scams have evolved over the last 25 years. We talked about that earlier. It used to be the phone call or the email with the bad grammar. It's just totally done a 180, and it's so sophisticated now.
It's really startling. As we begin to wrap up here, I know there are a couple of resources we want to make sure that we make available to the audience. Are there any final people have to be aware of this latest scam, or, “Chris, you missed out on this one point that is absolutely vital that we've got to talk about”?
That one point, I think we touched on it earlier, but it's worth repeating. Everybody is susceptible to becoming a victim of a scam or to fall for a scam. Some people might realize it right after it happens. Other people, it takes a lot longer. Some of them unfortunately don't realize it until they've lost all of their money, and then the scammer breaks contact with them. So just realizing that.Everybody is susceptible to becoming a victim of a scam or to fall for a scam. -Joyce Petrowski Click To Tweet
Scammers don't discriminate. They don't care how much money you have, how little money you have, your age, or anything like that. When somebody says, “I don't have any money,” well, then they might ask you to be a “sponsor,” because you're really a money mule, which is illegal, because the package you're getting and then sending someplace else was illegally begotten, so that makes the whole process.Scammers don't discriminate. They don't care how much money you have, how little money you have, your age, or anything like that. -Joyce Petrowski Click To Tweet
They also will walk you through if you have a credit card, how to do a cash advance on your credit card, and then now you have the money to give them, and then you're left footing the bill every month, which is just every month that you're making that payment is just another reminder of what happened. I think everybody needs to be aware, and everybody needs to be cautious.
Have that conversation with your loved ones, especially the older adults. Remember, and I'm in that category with the older adults. We did not grow up with cell phones and all of this technology. We've just always been very trusting. I would say to people, we would meet somebody just sitting on a park bench, and all of a sudden they're your long-lost friend. You can't do that these days.
You always have to be cautious.
Exactly. Very cautious.
You have a great resource, The Anatomy of a Scam, a number of the things that we've talked about, and a bunch more. Where can they find that?
That'll be on our website under resources and downloadable resources. If you sign up for our newsletter that we do via email every month, you'll get an email back with some information. Part of that information will have The Anatomy of a Scam on it.
What is the website?
It is roseadvocacy.org.
Awesome. My understanding is you've also started a podcast in the last couple of months talking about scams. Can you tell me about the podcast?
It's called Let's Talk About Scams. It's available on whatever podcast site you like to download from. We started in the middle of October. It comes out biweekly, every other Tuesday. The next episode will be next Tuesday, January 9th.
Right now, it's me talking about specific scams going into some more detail on it, giving you tips, but I'm going to start having guests. My first one is going to be a friend who had a family member that has fallen victim a couple of times. She's going to talk about that. I do have someone that I consult with who is a psychologist, who did her thesis on scams with older adults and actually wrote a book about it. She's very knowledgeable on all of those emotions and things that might make you more apt to want to believe a scam.
Very interesting. I look forward to listening to those episodes. If people want to connect with you, where can they find you personally?
There's a “contact us” form on the website, or you could shoot me an email. It's my name, [email protected]. If you don't want to write all that out, you can just do [email protected]. Our phone number's on the website as well, but I can give it to you at 602-445-7673.
Do you help connect people with resources to help them out, or is this more working for your organization to come out and do events?
I would say all of the above. I just had someone yesterday. They thought they might have signed up for something that was a scam, so she sent me the information. I just did some research.
I'm not a detective. I'm not someone that knows how to get in the back room of different websites and stuff like that. I'm not that technology-savvy, but just doing some basic research on it, it came up that it was not a scam, but there are a lot of reviews on it. Some are saying, “This isn't worth the money; it's a scam.” Some of them are like, “Wow, this is a really good program.” Other people will reach out to just talk about whether they've either fallen victim, or they know somebody that did.
I do have some resources where people can get some help if they have fallen victim. I just had somebody recently, and this is going on a lot, caregivers that are in the home. These are predominantly going to be the ones that are not associated with an in-home care association company. They just are out doing it on their own.
I don't want to throw a big blanket over all of them that are doing it on their own, but they're the ones that are going to go out and try and take over someone's power of attorney, their estate, their house, their car, and all that stuff. They're not working through a legitimate company. They're out there doing it on their own.
This happened. When the lady passed away, her brother talked to the caregiver. She's like, “There's no estate. There was nothing.” He's just like, “Yeah, that's not true.” But what can he do? He has to hire an attorney.
That is very, very challenging. On that note, Joyce, thank you so much for taking the time and coming on the podcast today.
Absolutely. Thank you for having me. I appreciate it.
You are very welcome.