A Swift Current Scammable Ohhh...Alright

Ohhh…Alright (detail)…Roy Lichtenstein 1964

A nasal male voice slowly enunciates each word:

                                      This message is intended to contact you

regarding an enforcement action

executed by the US Treasury

  intending your serious attention


My mind flutters as

I listen to the stern pronouncement

on my answering machine

a U. S. Treasury

enforcement action

intending my attention…?

Who talks like that?



I get it…)

It’s just

another day–

another scam–

intending my attention.

But the calls keep coming–

the gruff voice;

the urgent tone;

My name is Dennis Gray. Ignoring this message will be an intentional second attempt to avoid an initial appearance before a magistrate judge or grand jury for a federal criminal offense…

This is Officer John White…the reason for this call is to inform you that the IRS has issued an arrest warrant against you– and your physical address is under federal investigation…

This is Bill Russell, your prize director…this contest is now officially over and your ticketed entry has been selected as a winner…a brand new Ford Explorer vehicle…or one of three more prizes…

I ignore Dennis, Bill, and Officer John–

I feel smug


impervious to their malicious intent.

But my confidence wanes

as I remember my mama.

Even in the years before dementia,

she suddenly became easy prey;

on the phone

at her door

my mother was an elderly woman

with a target on her back.

A Swift Current an elderly woman alone-the elderly have a target on their backs

Eduaord Vuillard Femme Lisant Le Soir 1895

Oh Hallie, I did something horrible!

Mama, whatever it is—I’m sure it’s OK…


But as soon as I’d heard her voice

–plaintive, meek, fragile–

I knew it wasn’t OK.

Oh, but Hallie, this is so bad

What happened, Mama?

Well, last night I got a phone call from my Godson Peter.

He said he’d been arrested for unpaid traffic tickets. He needed cash for bail. And he begged me not to tell anyone-he was so embarrassed–he didn’t want his brothers to know.

He promised to pay me back today but he never called…

Oh Hallie, I just spoke to his roommate. Peter isn’t even in LA–he’s traveling for work. Peter wasn’t in jail at all!

Mama, I don’t understand…you gave him money? How?

A young man came to the door. He said he was a friend of Peter’s. I gave him all my cash…

Oh Hallie, I am so stupid!

But my mother was not stupid—

not that time,

nor any of the others.

A man came to the door on a blistering hot day. Could I trouble you for a glass of water? She told him to wait on the porch. When she returned, he was standing in her living room.


Later she discovered her wallet was missing.

A woman came to the door with a small child. Could my little girl please use your bathroom? She let them in. When they exited the back room, my mother discovered two men ransacking her bedroom.

I screamed at the top of my lungs!

I was amazed she was still alive.

They took nothing;

they took everything that mattered.

I was frightened and heartsick for my mama;

and yet

I had no idea how to protect her.

And I was perplexed;

at age 80,

my mother had lived alone for decades;

she still rode the bus

all the way across Los Angeles

to her art gallery job.

Why now

with no apparent warning—

was my smart, savvy mother

the victim of

scammers and thieves?

Years later, a newspaper headline revealed a possible answer:

For the old, less sense of who to trust

there’s a reason so many older people fall for financial scams…their brains don’t send out as many warning signals that ignite a danger-ahead gut response.”

Research has found that when a young person senses a threat, a certain section of the brain—the anterior insula– literally lights up, warning of impending danger. But as we age, the anterior insula might no longer physically respond to potential trouble.

Or in the words of Dr. Shelley Taylor, UCLA professor and lead researcher:

“The warning signals that convey a sense of potential danger to younger adults just don’t seem to be there for older adults…”

And suddenly it all made sense—

the answer was in the science;

dementia was not the culprit–but still

my mama’s aging brain had failed her.

Somehow I’d always known

my mother was not responsible for what was happening–

her unexpected vulnerability and misplaced trust were completely

out of her control.

A Swift Current Scammable for the vulnerable elderly, every knock at the door can mean danger. And there's science behind the scam

Edward Hopper The Stairway 1919

And now

I’m the one

who receives threatening messages.

And while I’m certain

Officer John won’t arrest me;

a grand jury won’t indict me;

and I didn’t win a Ford Explorer at the mall;

I understand why the elderly make gut-wrenching decisions.

Every sinister word

(this is our final attempt)

menacing tone

(I advise you to cooperate)

urgent demand

(it is important you call this number today!)

could lead to catastrophe

for an unsuspecting senior.

Without blame

accusation or


(mama please– don’t say that–you are not stupid!)

we need to protect our elderly.

It is urgent.

It is up to us.

It’s a matter of trust.

A Swift Current Scammable the vulnerable elderly, the science behind misplaced trust

Vuillard Man in the Mirror

I welcome your comments. Can you share other examples of fraud to help our readers understand the range of scams perpetrated against the elderly? Do you have suggestions how to protect our loved ones?

For further insight, please see the NY Times December 5, 2012 For The Old, Less Sense of Who To Trust by Judith Graham. Here is the link

The article mentions the National Center on Elder Abuse and the Eldercare Locator, a federal service that helps older adults and caregivers find local programs and agencies. “Protect Your Pocketbook” is a consumer guide intended for older adults and families who wanted to understand what puts them at risk, how to prevent fraud, and where to turn for help.


23 thoughts on “Scammable

  1. A Note to Readers

    It has been eight months since my last post, The Dark Has Its Own Light. When I wrote that essay, I had no idea there would be such a long gap between entries. But many people asked me if I had concluded my mother’s story, and it seemed that in many ways I had. And while a profound sense of longing– about the loss of both my parents– will always be with me, writing A Swift Current has helped me understand and control the grief in my life. I deeply appreciate your reading and sharing your responses with me here and through private messages.
    However, I am still very interested in issues related to the elderly and/or dementia. This essay, Scammable, in some ways signals a broadening of the blog’s direction. The tone and subject matter are somewhat different, as it involved issues that preceded my mother’s decline into dementia. But the issues we confronted were nonetheless harrowing. As I look back, it is interesting to me that I was so sympathetic while she was victimized by scammers, but just a few years later I expected her to rise up and defeat the confusion of dementia.
    I remember telling a friend that the next entry would be written quickly because it was basically reporting and less emotional for me. Famous last words–all writing is hard!
    I thank you for your support of A Swift Current even with the long gap between essays. I intend to continue my exploration here. I have more stories to share.
    Thank you,

    • My dear Hallie,I’m so glad that you’re back!
      Wonderful post !
      And you’de be surprised how many people would fall for this scams,not necessarily only 80 year old ones !
      It’s always good to be informed and that’s exactly what you’re doing!
      Xoxo oana

      • You are right–it is not only the elderly who are victimized by scammers–a friend just shared a story of a young woman who was approached that she had won a competition to be trained in news broadcasting. She was a vulnerable teenager and fell for the scam. I don’t know how much her family lost, but they had few assets and were harmed financially as well as emotionally by the ordeal.

        But I do think that the elderly are targeted and it is epidemic. I wish I could have figured out how to protect my mother.

        Thank you for commenting,

  2. Well done! I tried to leave a post but it didn’t work and it didn’t copy for me to send it and so I leave it at this – well done! >

  3. So glad that you are back, Hallie! Once again, you have brought up a part of the aging process that needs to be addressed…by those still care taking elderly relatives/friends, as well as by those of us who are marking more birthdays! My brother and I hit on a strategy that worked well for my dad as he became elderly…if anyone called his house, either trying to sell him something or attempting one of the “scare” tactics you refer to in your blog, he was to tell them that “his son, the attorney, would call them back.” Needless to say, this ended every sketchy call immediately. Thankfully, after some intense coaching, he utilized this approach whenever faced with a “scammable” situation. That being said, I worried constantly that he would open up his front door to danger…he had such a kind heart. Very grateful that nothing bad ever happened. I look forward to your next posting!

    • I think that is great advice and kudos to you and your brother for thinking of this approach–and your dad for sticking to it. It strikes me that “you need to talk to my son/daughter”–and the attorney angle–could be a strong deterrent. However, my mom could be so feisty/independent, I wonder if I could have convinced her to tell people to call me–especially if she wasn’t able to sense the danger. I couldn’t even convince her to let the answer machine pick up–and then she would be upset that she’d missed her favorite TV show!

      But thank you. I really appreciate this input. I hope it helps some people who are grappling with this issue…

  4. Happy to see your post Hallie. This is a very real problem and my mother-in-law fell prey to these scams. My mother was a bit of a skeptic by nature and I think it protected her. Now I have been the object of scams and I realize how many there are out there.
    Looking forward to future posts and be well.

    • I wonder if we begin to know the extent of the problem. I read recently that billions of dollars each year are lost to scams. Home repair, investment scams and the IRS example cited in the essay are among the most common. I will continue to research this topic and share information here. If you have any advice based on your mother-in-laws experience, I welcome your input. Thank you as always for your support of my efforts, Hallie

  5. So sorry your mother was victimized. And, I am happy that you produced this reminder. We are all experiencing these calls and if we are living alone will probably be approached directly.

    • Thank you for commenting. I cannot imagine actually “falling for” a threatening call–and yet I chose the words “my mind flutters” because there is invariably a split second in which I think it is real. If a day ever comes when I don’t recognize a threat, I hope my family and friends protect me…

  6. Vuillard’s paintings resonated with my mother, perhaps because she could see herself in them. The daughters sitting down to tea was one I recall marveling over with her. This one of the woman sitting alone near the lampshade speaks of an elderly person in her later years, alone in the living room, just like my mother. From that chair, she was in touch with the world, but she was alone – as so beautifully depicted here. You have written so well and so accurately of her plight.

    • Thank you! I am always on the lookout for images that convey and elaborate on my themes. The warm glow of her living room, the comfort of her chair, contrast dramatically with the darkness outside her window. I could just see my mother relaxing in her chair when the ringing phone or knock at the door upended her life. I love that you feel her aloneness in Vuillard’s work. I thought the open window was also reflected in the dark outside the door in Hopper’s piece. How tragic that she was not safe at home.

  7. I can so relate to this. For years my dad had been entering contests hoping to win the grand prize. Then here were threatening phone calls to the point when we had to change his number. It wasn’t until I took control of his checking account that I saw 2 monthly recurring charges for $20. each. I called the listed numbers on the credit card statement. It was a monthly lottery he had entered for $5, which then gave the scammers the right to deduct the ongoing fee. Both phone numbers led to the same woman in the midwest somewhere who told me her own mother was a victim of such goings on. She cancelled both lottery subscriptions. Months after his death, I am still getting magazines he signed up for in one of the “contests”including Outdoors, ESPN ( he was never a sports enthusiast), and Seventeen!
    Thanks, Hallie, for enlightening us as to the changes in the elder brain that make us susceptible to scammers. Hopefully we will be wise enough to resist when we reach that point.

    • Thank you so much for taking the time to comment and offering readers a window into yet another type of scam that victimizes the elderly. It frankly never occurred to me to keep an eye on my mom’s credit card bill nor her checking account. But the lure to win a contest is strong and perhaps your dad didn’t even realize the monthly charges were on his bill.

      I say that because a few years ago I fell for a gimmick when ordering from a major online retailer. The approach was something like “check here if you want a coupon for your next order.” However, it turned out that checking the box resulted in a repeated monthly charge, but the way it was labeled on my bill , I thought it was a new fee for having my credit card linked to airline miles. BUT when that separate annual fee appeared, I called the credit card company. That’s when I learned that I had authorized a new fee when I “checked the box”–but there was no “coupon” or other benefit. So many people had lodged complaints, the credit card company credited my account for the entire back amount.

      If I was that gullible, I can only imagine what it was like for your dad who thought he had a chance to win big. I hope A Swift Current readers will take note of this scam and perhaps use your experience to talk with their elderly parents now–and commence a periodic review of checking accounts and credit card bills. I know my mom would have asserted her independence over her affairs, yet if I discussed your experience, we probably could have come up with a system for me to help her.

      Thank you again for sharing your discovery. I have heard from other readers and will share some of their stories in the comment section in the next few days. As for when I get older, I really hope a young relative looks out for me…Hallie

  8. Pingback: As we age, changes in our brain make us more susceptible to exploitation. | Dealing with Dementia

    • Thank you Kay Bransford your comments about my writing and sharing my information on your blog, Dealing with Dementia. I encourage my readers to check out your blog–one of the leading sources for information about dementia/aging parents issues on the internet. Again, I am honored that you chose to mention me in your writing.

      Here is the link to Kay’s blog:

  9. Hi. This is great material for widening your blog thoughts. I notice it most when using Craigslist to sell things and right now trying rent out a house online. There are always long responses promising a cashier’s check with extra for my trouble if I just let the item get picked up by their shipper or send my bank info for them to deposit the rent…We become used to styles and formulas after awhile but at first it is easy to fall for the new trick, especially if living alone and on a pension.
    A friend of mine is currently going through frustrating care of a rapidly declining spouse and it suggests another theme–that of self-care in the face of family illness. Who hasn’t wished the phone wouldn’t ring or became fed up with caring for ailing and cranky family members? How does one give what they need and still stay sane and healthy oneself? At what point are health crises calls for attention or crying wolf instead of true need? It’s tough to know.
    Thanks for continuing to write!

    • Thank you for your observation about the “let my shipper pick it up” scam. My sister (who is an artist) was alert when a caller suggested an elaborate scheme to pay for artwork. The proposed plan was so convoluted it had to be some sort of money laundering– it was such a red flag that she quickly ceased communication and contacted her state’s attorney general consumer affairs division.

      I have heard of other types of schemes from readers. One learned of her parents’ declining capabilities when their neighbor called her–alerting her that her father was going to withdraw $5000 from his bank account for his IRS bill. She was fortunate that the neighbor took interest and intervened–someone else might have been reluctant to get involved. Up until that time, she had thought her parents were managing well.

      Another reader told me the IRS scammers reached him on the phone and were planning to pick him up to escort him to his bank. My reader is in his mid-80s…he was so frightened that he almost agreed-but he paused and re-grouped– luckily his warning signals were still intact and he did not fall for the scam.

      At this stage, I do not know how to address your second question–the burden on caregivers. I believe Kay Bransford has written about this topic (see the link to Kay’s blog Dealing with Dementia). I promise to give this some thought. If anything, I look back and wish I had been more available when my mother was struggling…a nightly phone call perhaps–what happened today? My sister and I used to think some of my mom’s issues were calls for attention but now I think they were not that at all. I think she was too proud–and perhaps too frightened–when her mind started to fail, and did not want to admit to herself–or to us–what was happening. She had seen it with her sister…she wanted anything but that for herself; a great sorrow for all of us in her final years.

      Thanks as always for your observations,


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