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Senior Lifestyles: FBI specialists offer advice to area seniors

DEBBIE DEEM

MIDDLEBURY — Seniors at the Residence at Otter Creek in Middlebury and others around the state listened to and took part in an Oct. 8 conference that raised awareness of financial abuse that older Vermonters can encounter when they head into cyberspace.
The Financial Abuse Specialist Team of Vermont organized the all-day conference — held via the Zoom video conferencing software — during which community members and professionals discussed the risks senior citizens face online. 
Debbie Deem, a former victim specialist with the FBI, keynoted a talk on romance imposter crimes. Romance imposter crimes take place when the criminal uses a fake identity to gain the victim’s affection and trust for financial gain. Then they get the victim to give them money. Deem said these crimes are often invisible to the public due to the lack of public knowledge and resources for victims. 
“I refer to them as invisible victims and invisible crimes because often victims aren’t eligible for a lot of support and so much is unknown about these crimes,” she said. 
Three-quarters of the meeting’s participants said they work or live with senior citizens, making them a potential resource for romance crime victims. Deem provided tips and information for those working with older, vulnerable adults. She focused on the actions caregivers can take in order to help the senior citizens in their lives, especially when these senior citizens are unaware of the dangers they face online. 
“This (knowledge of technology and its potential harm) is important because older adults often don’t know much about the technology used to facilitate these crimes and are unable to use cyber safety practices,” Deem said. 
Senior citizens are often targeted for romance imposter crimes due to their financial stability. An AARP study referenced in Deem’s presentation found that adults 50 years and older hold 83% of wealth in the United States. Additionally, older adults are targets of romance crimes due to loneliness, possible cognitive or medical issues, and various other vulnerabilities. 
Deem emphasized the growing vulnerability of senior citizens during the ongoing pandemic, which puts them further at risk of being targeted in romance imposter crimes. 
“Loneliness is a major vulnerability for older adults, especially during COVID or after the death of a loved one or spouse,” she said.
In addition to the danger of the losing money themselves, older victims also face possible legal trouble themselves for money laundering when they are asked for and give money to an imposter, Deem said. 
“Victims act as money mules or movers for their perpetrators, though they may not even be aware that they are being used,” she said. “They are being prosecuted in the U.S. both locally and federally. Remember, this is money laundering.” 
Romance imposter crimes often cross state and national borders, and Vermont senior citizens are not immune from these and other internet crimes. In 2019, there were 500 victim reports of internet crimes in Vermont, accounting for over $2.3 million in reported losses. 
In order to stop romance scams and other internet crimes, Deem said that it is critical for caregivers to continuously intervene in situations where senior citizens may become victims. 
“One time intervention will not work to solve this problem,” Deem said. “Intervention is a process. Not a one-time visit or call.” 
The talk was concluded with a discussion of steps caregivers can take when intervening in potential romance crimes and resources available for current or former victims. Deem urged caregivers to keep up the fight against romance imposter crimes. 
“Don’t give up on (senior victims),” she said. “It took them weeks or months to get into it, it may take time to ‘leave.’”
Want to learn more about this topic? Read the AARP Study, or check out Vermont IC3 Crimes.

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