Bilking the Elderly, With a Corporate Assist
By CHARLES DUHIGG
The thieves operated from small offices in Toronto and hangar-size rooms in India. Every night, working from lists of names and phone numbers, they called World War II veterans, retired schoolteachers and thousands of other elderly Americans and posed as government and insurance workers updating their files.
Then, the criminals emptied their victims’ bank accounts.
Richard Guthrie, a 92-year-old Army veteran, was one of those victims. He ended up on scam artists’ lists because his name, like millions of others, was sold by large companies to telemarketing criminals, who then turned to major banks to steal his life’s savings.
Mr. Guthrie, who lives in Iowa, had entered a few sweepstakes that caused his name to appear in a database advertised by infoUSA, one of the largest compilers of consumer information. InfoUSA sold his name, and data on scores of other elderly Americans, to known lawbreakers, regulators say.
InfoUSA advertised lists of “Elderly Opportunity Seekers,” 3.3 million older people “looking for ways to make money,” and “Suffering Seniors,” 4.7 million people with cancer or Alzheimer’s disease. “Oldies but Goodies” contained 500,000 gamblers over 55 years old, for 8.5 cents apiece. One list said: “These people are gullible. They want to believe that their luck can change.”
As Mr. Guthrie sat home alone — surrounded by his Purple Heart medal, photos of eight children and mementos of a wife who was buried nine years earlier — the telephone rang day and night. After criminals tricked him into revealing his banking information, they went to Wachovia, the nation’s fourth-largest bank, and raided his account, according to banking records.
“I loved getting those calls,” Mr. Guthrie said in an interview. “Since my wife passed away, I don’t have many people to talk with. I didn’t even know they were stealing from me until everything was gone.”
Telemarketing fraud, once limited to small-time thieves, has become a global criminal enterprise preying upon millions of elderly and other Americans every year, authorities say. Vast databases of names and personal information, sold to thieves by large publicly traded companies, have put almost anyone within reach of fraudulent telemarketers. And major banks have made it possible for criminals to dip into victims’ accounts without their authorization, according to court records.
The banks and companies that sell such services often confront evidence that they are used for fraud, according to thousands of banking documents, court filings and e-mail messages reviewed by The New York Times. ...full text