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AVOIDING A SCAM: Those who have recently lost a spouse through death or divorce often become targets of scammers.

Seek help if you think you’re a scam victim

Legal Matters: If you have to pay money to receive money later, it is almost assuredly a scam.

By Tim Halbach

Too often I receive calls from clients asking if something is a scam. Of course, there is the familiar scam that involves receiving an email from a Nigerian prince who needs your bank information to send you an inheritance (and actually, one of the alleged orchestrators of that scam was recently arrested in Louisiana). More recently, there has been a scam where someone claiming to be from the IRS calls you saying you owe money to the IRS. By the way, the IRS never calls you out of the blue to say you owe money. Instead, the process starts with a letter and usually involves an audit.

Is it love?
Most of us are familiar with situations where an elderly person owns a farm and is a widow or widower, and he or she then marries a much younger person. Is it love, or is that younger person just waiting for that elderly spouse to die so he or she can inherit the farm?

Another type of scam I have seen recently involves someone who is newly divorced or has a spouse who recently died. The individual may have received a cash divorce settlement or some life insurance money, and as a result, he or she has some extra cash in the bank. Looking to move forward in life, the individual joins a dating website. When meeting people online, he or she mentions being recently divorced or widowed. 

An online person portrays himself or herself as a successful business person. As the new relationship develops and both people get to know each other, the business person suddenly is short on cash — their money is “temporarily tied up.” So the business person asks for a small loan, maybe $5,000 or $10,000, and indicates he or she will be able to pay the other individual back right away. But then an emergency happens, and now a larger amount of money is needed to allow the business person to access his or her tied-up cash. Now the first individual, who wants the initial loan back, feels compelled to send the extra money in order to receive the initial loan. Eventually, the money runs out, the business person disappears and the money is gone. The first individual is then embarrassed about what happened and often doesn’t tell anyone. 

On guard
In today’s world, there is a wealth of information at a person’s fingertips. Obituaries contain a gold mine of personal information that is useful to a scammer and typically remains on funeral home websites for years. Divorce records are public and can be found online. Scammers arrange it so the spouse thinks he or she randomly met the scammer, but in fact, the scammer targeted the spouse.

An elderly person or someone who has recently gone through a difficult experience is the most vulnerable, but this can happen to anyone. If you think you might be a victim or a possible victim of a scam, call the local authorities. If you are embarrassed about it, call an attorney. The attorney is required to keep the matter confidential between the two of you. A good rule to follow is if you have to pay money to receive money later, it is almost assuredly a scam.

One way to avoid being scammed is to allow a child or someone else you trust to be your power of attorney, which allows that person to manage your money for your benefit. Another alternative is to put your assets in an irrevocable trust. Essentially, you put a child or someone you trust in charge of your assets, retain the income from those assets, if desired, and the irrevocable trust, if drafted correctly, has the added benefit of protecting your assets from the nursing home.

Even though they may have caught the “Nigerian prince,” scammers are not going away. Be mindful of whom you pay money to, and don’t be afraid to ask for help. I’ve seen many intelligent people become victims of a scam.

Halbach is a partner in the Chilton, Wis., ag law firm Twohig, Reitbrock, Schneider and Halbach S.C. Call him at 920-849-4999. 

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