How Seniors Get Scammed

Armen Keteyian is Chief Investigative Correspondent for CBS News.
Sgt. Yves LeBlanc of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police tracks down leads for a living. No, not murder, assault or arson leads – more like robbery. Only the victims aren't banks or convenience stores but rather senior citizens in the U.S. See, the kinds of leads LeBlanc is after are the ones used by Canadian con artists to contact and, more often than not, scam hundreds of thousands of older Americans out of billions of dollars every year.

Driving around Montreal with LeBlanc not long ago I had a hard time believing what I was hearing. That this scenic North American city was home to hundreds of so-called "boiler rooms," round-the-clock telemarketing operations with one purpose in mind: drain as much money out of American bank accounts through a variety of sweepstakes and lottery scams, even bogus government grants, before LeBlanc anti-fraud task force closes in and shuts down their operation.

You can't help but picture your grandparents on the line listening to one of these sweet-talking voices informing you that, "Mrs. Johnson, you've just been selected as a grand prize winner in our most recent drawing!!!" and all you have to do to collect is send or wire, say, $3,000, to pay Canadian taxes, insurance or other fees.

I know, I know. How can so many be so gullible, so naïve or greedy as to accept this kind of hokey from a stranger over the phone? Fact is some of these seniors are more than a little bit lonely, their capacity to reason or remember more than a little bit diminished; each and every one of their frailties played to perfection by heartless souls working off a tightly-written script. Over time trust is gained, checking accounts or credit card numbers revealed, bank accounts emptied.

Producer Wendy Krantz did an incredible job over the past two months digging out the details of how these scams operate. She not only found the victims that bring stories like these to life, she found con artists like "Zach," who during our interview in a Montreal hotel room showed little remorse for his actions.

And then there are the so-called "Leads" brokers, a shadowy network of guys who come to life on wiretap – sounding like something out of The Sopranos – making their living selling lists of names and personal information pulled from bogus sweepstakes entries or lottery forms or bought from crooked employees inside, for example, credit reporting services. I showed up at the door of one such supplier down in Rock Hill, South Carolina, a real piece of work by the last name of Panas, only to have it slammed in my face. Panas hung up the phone when I told him I heard he was the man to see for lead lists built on phony sweepstakes. Maybe he'll answer if the feds come calling.

For seniors or family and friends of seniors there's really a pretty simple list of do's and don'ts. Don't fill out any sweepstakes or lottery forms, especially those asking for home phone numbers or if you have a credit card or not. Don't stay on the line when someone says all you need to do to collect some GRAND PRIZE is pay a tax or fee. If you're the least bit suspicious Do send the attorney general in your state those forms or entries noting your suspicions. That said, there's one part of our cultural D.N.A. that's nearly impossible to protect, to change. Americans as a whole, said Zach, are a very trusting nation, especially older Americans. And more than ever, it appears, con artists in Canada are banking on that trust.