Selma Corman knows all about one of the most popular scams designed to rip off older Americans. When a Santa Clara County prosecutor mentioned the notorious "Midnight Call" scheme at a meeting Sunday afternoon, she nodded her head and raised her hand.

"I got one of those," she said at Congregation Beth David, a Jewish synagogue in Saratoga. But hardly anyone heard her because many in the crowd of about 100 blurted or mumbled the same thing. Corman later remembered the call in remarkable detail.

"I get this call in the middle of the night about three months ago," the 83-year-old from Sunnyvale said. "It's my grandson. He's crying. He's in a jail in Mexico and needs money to get out."

In short order, her grandson pleaded with her not to tell his parents. He handed the phone to an older man, his lawyer, who tells Corman she has a half-hour to send $1,900 to a Western Union office in Mexico City. She had to rush the money transfer so he could catch his plane back home.

"I don't know how to send money that fast," Corman told him. The grandson got back on the phone. "Please, Grandma!"

In a worrisome panic, Corman called her daughter in Los Angeles, who would be able to the send the money. Then, in a moment of clarity, Corman decided to send a text message to her grandson.

She asked, "What are you doing in Mexico?"

He answered in bewilderment, "What?"

Little light bulb


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It was all a scam, a common one in which thieves pose as desperate grandchildren in a jam to pry millions from unsuspecting, caring grandparents. Corman called the Mexico City number and asked for the lawyer, "Who the hell are you?" she asked. The man hung up immediately.

"I almost was taken, but I was lucky. A little light bulb goes off in your head," Corman said. "But something still bothers me. How did he get my name and how did he know I have a grandson?"

Older Americans lose $2.9 billion a year to fraud, according to a study last year by the National Committee for the Prevention of Elder Abuse and the Center for Gerontology at Virginia Tech. Most victims are from 80 to 90, and most are women.

Just how many of Congregation Beth David's elderly members have been victimized isn't known, but Rabbi Daniel Pressman said plenty of the seniors expressed enough worry to want more information on elder fraud. The meeting was organized by the temple's Noten Yad, or social justice committee, and People Acting in Community Together, a valley-wide interfaith group.

At Sunday's meeting, Santa Clara County law enforcers who deal with fraudulent crimes against the elderly explained how thieves are becoming more sophisticated and using the Internet to gather more information than ever about their targets.

According to Deputy District Attorney Janet Berry, midnight-call scammers usually work off profiles of elderly people puzzled together from financial mail pulled from trash bins or from social media postings. Even if the scam doesn't work, Berry said, the thieves can make money by selling the information to other scammers who will try other schemes.

Variety of scams

"Seriously," Berry told the audience in a deadpan tone, "if you have relative in jail, just leave them there!"

She got a big laugh and then proceeded, with help from Sheriff's Det. Marc Lehman, to describe the most common fraud committed against seniors in the valley. They include the high-tech, "advance fee" in which a telemarketer or E-mailer asks for money to help collect a foreign lottery in a corrupt country. Then there was the old, low-tech scam in which two crooks show up dressed in utility company uniforms, check out a fake problem, then return later to ransack the house when nobody's home.

They said elders in such situations should pause, agree to nothing and then call people they know and trust for advice. Because scammers tend to prey on isolated old people, the best defense is a community or network of friends able to detect scams in the works. Berry plans on giving more talks on the subject to community groups and houses of worship throughout the county.

"The more you can rely on other people," she said, "the better off you are."

Joe Rodriguez at 408-920-5767. Follow him on Twitter.com/JoeRodMercury.

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ELDER FRAUD
For more information or to report financial abuse of older people in Santa Clara County, call 1-855-323-5337; www.santaclara-da.org.