“Listen to me carefully”


Donna Bailey is 100 years old. But she’s still a fighter. The retired Yorkville nurse told state Assembly Member Rebecca Seawright how she resisted a phone scammer, “Mr. Miller from the government,” who wanted to steal her money. Photo courtesy of Seawright’s office
With Hanukkah underway and Christmas approaching, financial fraud is surging — and con artists are increasingly preying on vulnerable elderly on the UES and UWS
BY DOUGLAS FEIDEN

The instructions were explicit: Withdraw $20,000 in large bills. Conceal them inside the pages of several magazines. FedEx them to an address in Las Vegas. Then wait. The $1 million windfall will arrive a bit later.

Of course, it never did and never will. Instead, a criminal or crime ring, identity and whereabouts still unknown, had deployed the telephone swindle to trick an Upper East Sider out of the bulk of her life savings.

The victim was a 90-year-old Yorkville woman who lives alone on York Avenue in the East 80s and worked for years in the human resources department of what is now New York-Presbyterian Hospital.

She sang in the choir at the Jan Hus Presbyterian Church on 74th Street, was an active member of her community, and without kids of her own, doted on her nieces and nephews, including one who died on 9/11.

Unfortunately, her story is all too common: Internet-based, auto-dialing and search-by-age technology has given fraudsters ease and anonymity to make all-but-untraceable phone calls from anywhere in the world — dangling bogus gifts and rewards to steal personal data and cash.

Despite the con’s digitization, it’s still built around a fast-talking pitch that’s as old as the analog telephone. Imperative you take immediate financial action, a caller will say. No need to consult with family or friends. Fat cash prizes “guaranteed” — even if you didn’t request them.

Meanwhile, there’s a vast pool of potential marks that perpetrators can target on both sides of Central Park — 40,821 Upper East Siders over the age of 65, including 5,270 residents north of 85, and 33,678 Upper West Siders who are 65 and up, including 5,366 who top 85.

Adding to their vulnerability: At least 50 percent live alone, city data shows.

Consider the case of 100-year-old Donna Bailey, a retired nurse who worked at Memorial Sloan Kettering and lives on East End Avenue. She got calls from a “Mr. Miller from the government” demanding she send $600 and “everything will be cleared up.” She didn’t fall for it.

Or Helene Goldfarb, 89, a retired science teacher at Hunter High School and Yorkville resident who said she was “badly badgered” by scam calls demanding cash for phony Hurricane Maria relief.

“None of us who are old have that much money that we want to give it all away,” she said. She didn’t pay up, but remains shaken and adds, “I stopped answering the phone after that experience.”

Not everyone is as fortunate as Bailey and Goldfarb:

“Telephone scamming is nearing epidemic proportions — and the time is now to find a cure,” said state Assembly Member Rebecca Seawright, who chairs the Assembly Subcommittee on Consumer Fraud Protection.

She cited a series of “devious plots” to steal the life savings of residents in her East Side district and citywide, adding, “The sad reality is that too many people are conning too many of us!”

Seawright told Straus News she’ll hold a public hearing early next year aimed at documenting fraudulent schemes and crafting legislation in Albany to protect senior citizens from phone thievery.

“I am calling on our community to let my office know of attempted telephone scams,” she said, including requests for donations from unfamiliar organizations or causes and all other types of unwanted solicitations or abuse.

“I am sending a warning to everyone,” Seawright added. “Beware of these scammers who are relentless in their harassing pursuit of your money in the holiday season. Remember, ‘Nothing free is for a fee.’”

ANATOMY OF A CON

That was the trap that ensnared the Yorkville woman, whose is being identified only by her first name, Shirley, for privacy reasons, at the request of Audrey Berman Tannen, Seawright’s chief of staff.

Pestered by non-stop phone calls from an impostor who falsely claimed to represent Publishers Clearing House, and demanded her speedy response to “urgent” financial matters, Shirley withdrew $20,000 in cash from her bank on York Avenue in early October, Tannen said.

That was the sum required in advance of her receipt of a $1 million prize she’d supposedly won. As instructed, she inserted large-denomination bills into magazines, took them to a FedEx location on First Avenue, shelled out $86 for the mailing to Nevada and waited for a bonanza that never arrived.

Then the phone calls started all over again — about six a day, every day of the week, at all hours, Shirley told Tannen. Her $20,000 was already gone, but they still wouldn’t leave her alone.

As Tannen told the story, “Shirley just kept shaking her head and asking, ‘Why? Why would anyone want to do this to me? Why?’”

What was the purpose of the new round of calls? While it isn’t certain, and Shirley could have been targeted by yet another malefactor, a scammer will often target his victim more than once, promising — for a fee — to recoup funds stolen in an initial fraud.

In any event, three voice-mail messages left for Shirley in mid-October, and recorded by Tannen for documentation, provide a portrait of intimidation and high-pressure tactics used to extract cash from the elderly.

“Mrs. Shirley, listen to me, and listen to me very carefully,” the con artist says at one point. “This is very important. We need to get to you, and we need to get to you ASAP.

“You need to please pick up the phone,” the message continues. “We need to get to you, and we need to get to you immediately. Please do not disappoint me. Pick up the phone, and pick up the phone right now.”

Such harassment can be expected to intensify as the city populace ages: Over half of financial fraud victims are over age 70, a 2017 AARP study found.

“For senior citizens, the holidays should mean, ‘Tis the season to be joyful,’” Seawright said. “Instead, it is, ‘Tis the season of scams.’”

Readers, family members and residents who have been targets or victims of telephone scams and want to share their stories can contact state Assembly Member Rebecca Seawright’s office by calling 212-212-288-4607, emailing seawrightr@nyassembly.gov or stopping by her community office at 1485 York Avenue between 78th and 79th Streets. They can also contact reporter Douglas Feiden at invreporter@strausnews.com