FILE - A general view of the Department of Justice building is seen in Washington, Feb 1, 2018.
FILE - A view of the Department of Justice building in Washington.

U.S. prosecutors have charged more than 400 people around the world with bilking older Americans out of more than $1 billion in the largest elderly fraud crackdown in history. 

This year's sweep marks a 55% increase over last year and comes as the Justice Department redoubles its efforts to combat elderly fraud, a crime that costs older Americans billions of dollars a year. 

Last year, the Justice Department charged more than 260 people with defrauding more than 2 million Americans to the tune of more than $750 million in losses. It was then the largest elderly fraud crackdown on record. 

The schemes uncovered this year cost elder Americans more than $1 billion, according to Attorney General William Barr, who announced the results of the latest sweep at an event in Tampa, Florida. 

“What makes these crimes particularly heinous is not only the vulnerability of the victims, not only the breach of trust involved, but also the victims’ stage in life – the victims usually do not have the opportunity to recover from the financial loss,” Barr said. 

More than a quarter of the fraudsters have been prosecuted, Barr said. All 94 U.S. attorney’s offices around the country were involved. 

FILE - Former FBI Director William Webster, who was targeted by a man who peddled a lottery scam via phone calls and emails, addresses elder financial exploitation, at the Justice Department in Washington, March 7, 2019.

Crime on the rise

Fraud against seniors is a growing crime in America. Fraudsters exploit seniors’ inability to turn down an offer, even one that’s too good to be true. According to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, losses from financial scams and other crimes targeting older Americans quadrupled to $6 billion in 2017 from 2013. 

In recent years, several high-profile cases have put the spotlight on elderly fraud. 

Last year, William Webster, the 95-year-old former director of the FBI and the CIA, revealed that he had been the target of a failed scam in 2014. A con artist from Jamaica promised him a grand sweepstakes prize of $72 million and a new Mercedes-Benz. To claim the prize, Webster was asked to pay $50,000. When Webster refused, the frequent calls escalated into “scary threats,” leading Webster and his wife to call the FBI. By 2017, the caller, Keniel Thomas, was lured into the U.S. and arrested. 

Barr has had his own brushes with elderly fraud, albeit from a distance. Before starting his second tenure at the helm of the Justice Department last February, scam artists posted his 1992 official Justice Department portrait online and urged people to send in money in exchange for favors from the then former attorney general. 

“My fake persona was informing people that, as the former attorney general, I had special access to government grants, and that if people sent me some money, I would tell them how to get a lot of money in exchange,” Barr said. 

Barr started getting calls at his office from desperate victims asking why they had not received their money. 

Desperate callers

“These were frantic calls,” Barr said. “Some people were desperately hoping this was not a scam. Others who called were embarrassed and wanted to let me know this was going on, to know whom they could contact for support.” 

One victim from Georgia said that she and her husband had lost their life savings of $40,000 to the scam, Barr said. 

The incident “drove home to me the viciousness of this crime, and why we had to tackle it full on,” the attorney general said. 

Under the administration of President Donald Trump, the Justice Department has made combating elderly fraud one of its top priorities. In 2017, Trump signed into law the Elder Abuse Prevention and Prosecution Act, calling for enhanced penalties for elderly fraud convictions. In 2018, the department established an elder fraud task force and coordinator. 

Barr said the Justice Department has been fighting elderly fraud on multiple fronts. Last month, it obtained restraining orders against five companies and three individuals responsible for facilitating hundreds of millions of robocalls. In December, the Justice Department said it had halted more than 600 so-called money mules hired by criminals to move stolen money around the world.