Police warn seniors about email scams


As technology evolves, so do con artists and their scams designed to separate the vulnerable from their life savings.

One thing remains constant: The primary targets of these grifters who use the phone, email, social media and even good, old-fashioned snail mail are the elderly.

“For whatever reason, it appears that the elderly tend to want to believe. It’s based on a dream come true a lot of times or there’s a promise of something for nothing and that’s something we all want to strive for,” police Maj. Sam Thomas said.

Hawaii Police issued three alerts about scams in the past week. Most were phone calls seeking financial information, including credit card numbers. But one email scam came from an individual posing as a real estate agent with an attachment that contained a computer virus that if clicked on, might allow the sender access to personal details to steal the recipient’s identity and financial information.

“I’ve never seen this one in my 30 years in the department,” Thomas said. “The other thing about it is that there’s a misspelled word. That’s something we usually tell people they might check when they get these email-type solicitations is look for misspelled words or look for them not referring to the person by name. Because if it’s a robotic type of computer email that’s sent out, they’re all gonna say the same thing. They’re not gonna say ‘Aloha, Sam Thomas.’

“When they send something out that just says ‘aloha’ or ‘hello’ without a name and they’re just trying to solicit something, that usually is a trigger that something is amiss.”

Thomas said to never click on an email attachment from an unknown sender.

He had other words of advice, as well.

“I would say don’t give out any personal or banking information, number one. Number two, ask for a callback number and go seek counsel of someone you trust that can call and make contact with individuals. But the rule of thumb is: Nothing is free.”

Alan Parker, the executive in charge of the county’s Office of Aging, said scams targeting seniors are “really a bear to work with because it’s constant.”

“We’ve known for a long time and we try our best to alert people,” he said. “We put a lot of these in our newsletter monthly.”

He said representatives of the county Prosecutor’s Office use the “Seniors Living in Paradise” TV program to try to inform kupuna about what to look for and how to protect themselves.

Jolean Uilani Yamada, an aging and disability specialist in the Office of Aging, said many kupuna don’t realize how vulnerable they are to financial predators.

“What I get from the calls I’ve been getting is that they never think they’re going to become a victim or be scammed,” she said. “In fact, a lot of them don’t realize they are being scammed until there’s money missing or a family member starts to question them.

“A lot of times, the family members are not aware of what’s going on because they don’t want to pry or breach their privacy. But based on my experience and the calls that I get, we need to let the children of these kupuna know just how vulnerable their parents are right now. Because I don’t think they’re aware of it.”

Con artists also use social media to get financial information from the unsuspecting, often using phony but plausible accounts to conduct “phishing” scams.

“A lot of grandparents are excited about Facebook because they can get photos from their kids and grandkids and there are people who trace it and send them a message that has their family members’ names on it. They’re very open; they’re very vulnerable to that,” Parker said. “It blows my mind how they can manipulate these messages to make it seem like they come from others.”

Pauline Fukunaga, the Office of Aging’s program planner, said when it comes to targeting the elderly, snail mail is still popular because many kupuna are not online. She said scammers sometimes use some pretext involving Medicare to extract money or financial information from seniors.

“The family needs to get involved in checking on all the things that come through the mail — bills, invoicing from various service providers, checking to make sure it’s legitimate and correct because sometimes they double bill, and there can be trouble,” she said. “Because usually with an elderly person, when they see a bill, the first thing they’re going to do is pay it if they can. Even if it’s from a legitimate service provider and it’s a mistake or a double bill, if you chase them down to pay you back, it can take a long time. I think the underlying message here is family has to get involved.”

Yamada said adult children of kupuna often need to intervene in a loving and helpful way to ensure their parents aren’t victimized.

“I think the challenging part is convincing your parents you’re not trying to infringe on their privacy, you’re trying to protect their well-being and their finances and all. If you’re coming from that approach, they’ll probably be more receptive, if you set up a joint account or monitor the mail,” she said. “‘Let me help you with these things to make it easier for you.’ It’s trying to build a different kind of relationship with your parents.

“What I’m finding is that a lot of kupuna will welcome this because now people are coming to visit them. They’re not so alone. Because oftentimes, we’re so busy with everything that we’re doing. We don’t think of them as much as we should. But if they have family getting involved, they end up loving it because they actually get to see everybody.”

Those being targeted by a scam or think they’ve been victimized should call the Police Department’s nonemergency line at 935-3311. For kupuna, family or caregiver information, call Yamada at 961-8626.

Email John Burnett at jburnett@hawaiitribune-herald.com.