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Scams That Come to Life After Death


By Lori Mars, JD

Two weeks before Thanksgiving, Ray Mendoza [i] was shopping at a local Target when he suddenly grew dizzy and lost consciousness. Paramedics took him to the hospital, where he remained comatose in intensive care for over two weeks. The 56-year-old married father of three girls had suffered back-to-back strokes and lost all brain function before succumbing to his injuries.

In the days after Ray’s death, as the family mourned the monumental loss, they were compelled to navigate COVID-based restrictions on funeral services and interment delays. No doubt the pandemic had unwittingly disrupted the natural grieving process and observance of the religious traditions the family held dear. Yet, it was the disquieting call from a stranger purporting to be from Forester’s Insurance Company demanding payment of an overdue life insurance premium that traumatized the bereaved family at a moment of extraordinary vulnerability and distress.

Mrs. Mendoza received the call as Ray lay in repose at the mortuary on the eve of burial. The caller ID had been masked, concealing the offender’s true identity and intentions. After simulating sympathy and offering rote condolences, the caller explained that Mr. Mendoza owed $4000 on his $75,000 life insurance policy. To avoid imminent cancellation, he demanded that Mrs. Mendoza settle the deficit by purchasing a gift card in the amount of $4000 from Office Depot. Mrs. Mendoza was provided a telephone number and directed to call the man with the identification number on the gift card. She was given 48 hours to meet the demand.

In the haze of mourning, Mrs. Mendoza vaguely recalled that her husband had purchased life insurance, but she could not recall the premium payments or policy terms. The distraught widow handed the phone off to her son-in-law, Joe, to gather the remittal instructions. Instead, Joe asked a series of questions to authenticate the demand. Through the nearly one-hour call, the purported insurance representative defiantly averted direct responses and redoubled his demand with increasing aggression. As the caller’s threats intensified, his malign motives were unmistakable.

It is unknown whether the would-be scammer learned of Ray’s death by scouring his obituary or through some other means. Like other fraudsters, he pre-selected his mark and intended to seize on her vulnerabilities with coercion, fear, and pugnacious tenacity. Without apprehension or hesitation, he insistently held to his script for nearly an hour before abandoning his ruse.

While Mrs. Mendoza’s caller was ultimately unsuccessful, scams are on the rise. According to the Federal Trade Commission, in 2019 imposter scams were the most commonly reported fraud, resulting in over $667 million in consumer financial losses. Phone calls were the most frequent mode of soliciting targets.

In the past year, the pandemic has opened new, more insidious, and disturbing avenues for scammers to defraud unsuspecting targets. The mounting instability and insecurity caused by the contagion have proven a receptive breeding ground for opportunists. Recent COVID-related scams include vacuous promises to supply virus remedies, early vaccines, testing kits, and counterfeit stimulus checks. As with all scams, vigilance and early recognition remain a first line of defense. Awareness, education, and resources are key to intervention. Several resources and reporting agencies are provided below.

Resources

Reports

  • The National Elder Fraud Hotline (833) 372-8311.
  • The Federal Trade Commission Fraud Report Hotline (877) 382-4357.
  • FBI Internet Crime Complaint Center
  • AARP Fraud Watch Network Helpline (877) 908-3360
  • Adult Protective Services (APS)

[i] The names have been changed to protect the identity of the parties.

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Special Thanks to Judith D. Tamkin

We are sincerely appreciative to Judith D. Tamkin for her gift to help establish the USC Center on Elder Mistreatment’s website. Her deep and personal commitment to eradicating elder abuse is helping to reshape our understanding of elder abuse and ultimately save innumerable older adults from abuse and neglect.