Seniors are among the groups most targeted for financial fraud, she said.
“I always knew that the elder fraud was a problem, but when I got to this unit, I realized it is an absolute epidemic,” Varnell said. “Every sort of fraud that hits the normal public—it’s hitting seniors worse.”
The Elder Financial Fraud Unit was created by Tarrant County District Attorney Sharen Wilson to help combat these crimes. In 2018, there were 38 validated reports of financial fraud against Tarrant County residents ages 65 and older, according to data from the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services. The number of nonvalidated allegations was 859. Part of that gap is due to the difficulty of identifying a suspect and collecting enough evidence to pursue a case.
There can be many reasons why seniors are targeted, Varnell said. For one, they grew up in a generation that was more trusting, she said. Another reason is that many retired seniors interact mostly with other people their age, who might not have heard of the latest scams, she said.
“The word-of-mouth doesn’t reach them as well,” Varnell said.
Deterring senior scams and prosecuting perpetrators are the main parts of the Tarrant County Elder Financial Fraud Unit’s mission. Its attorneys and investigators also meet with seniors throughout the county and partner with local police to educate people about elder financial fraud.
“We provide continuous training support for our law-enforcement partners to help them understand how to fit these ... investigations into a criminal framework,” she said.
Tarrant County ranks No. 1 among 19 counties in the North Texas area for allegations of financial exploitation for people ages 65 and older, according to the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services.
Tarrant County’s Elder Financial Fraud unit is partly responsible for this, DFPS media specialist Marissa Gonzales said.
“The county’s dedication to investigating fraud against the elderly means higher numbers of referrals,” she said in an email.
In most cases of elder financial fraud, the money from the victim is gone, Varnell said. About half of the cases she works result in the recovery of some of that money. Her unit can force criminals to pay the money back over time if they are caught. Since May 2017, the Tarrant County unit has recovered more than $1 million of stolen money, Varnell said.
“We have gotten $1.64 million ordered in restitution and seizures,” she said in an email.
But prosecuting elder scammers is difficult, local police said, as they often live either in another state or overseas, Southlake Police Sergeant Jonathan Macheca said.
“There is a disconnect, and a lot of [elder fraud] is done online, and tracing people online is incredibly difficult,” he said.
Grapevine Police Department cases have usually been the result of a scammer calling seniors, convincing them to buy gift cards and then getting them to hand over the cards or their codes, GPD Media Manager Amanda McNew said.
Macheca said he spoke with a man in the past month who refused to believe he was being victimized. The police department learned about the possible crime from the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services.
“It was obvious to us that it was a fraud—he was sending thousands of dollars to a female. ... But he doesn’t want to pursue any kind of charges because he literally thinks that she’s his friend,” Macheca said. “Technically, that’s not a crime because he doesn’t report it as a crime.”
Common types of scams
The perpetrators of the financial exploitation cases the Tarrant County unit prosecutes usually fall into a few categories that include organized crime and contractors, Varnell said.
Organized crime includes several categories of scams, Varnell said. These criminals will try to befriend their victims and con them.
In contractor scams, people will pretend to offer a service. They will try to offer discounted materials or a good deal but will provide poor work or no work at all, Varnell said.
Most scams have some red flags for seniors. For example, no debt collector will ever ask someone to pay a debt with gift cards or give up financial information right away, McNew said.
“If you are ever called about owing money, write down the person’s information, but then, call the company on your own,” she said in an email. “Do not use the caller’s phone number, but search for the bank or company on your own to try to verify information.”
If elderly people find themselves wiring money unexpectedly, Varnell urges them to stop and reconsider why they are doing it.
“If you examine it very closely at the bottom of that justification, you will see it’s your own grief, loneliness and feelings of, ‘I might not have enough money to live out my days.’ Those three things are at the bottom of most scams,” Varnell said.
Crime and punishment
Those who are tried and convicted of elder financial fraud can face penalties ranging from a fine to a sentence of life in prison, Varnell said. The penalty usually depends on how much the convicted person has stolen.
According to the U.S. Department of Justice, about one in 20 older adults nationwide experiences financial exploitation each year, but due to a reluctance to report, authorities only learn about only one of every 44 incidents of elder financial abuse.
“A lot of the fraud, unfortunately, that goes on—it goes unreported,” Colleyville Police Detective Jeff Prater said. “We have a tremendous amount of senior citizens and elderly people that get defrauded, and now, they’re embarrassed, and they’re ashamed.”
Reporting is important to help police know about any new trends in these crimes. It also raises awareness so others can be informed.
“Notify your local police department,” Prater said, “It could be real; it could be fake; you don’t really know. Call us. Ask us the question.”
In addition to local police, elder financial fraud can be reported to the county’s unit at 817-884-1400. Fraud related to unwanted calls or emails can be reported to the Federal Communications Commission at www.consumercomplaints.fcc.gov.