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Frozen Body Bernie Tiede

Bernie Tiede is led into the Panola County Courthouse by law enforcement officials in Carthage, Texas, on May 6, 2014. 

(AP Photo/LM Otero)

Movie buffs might remember director Richard Linklater’s 2011 hit film “Bernie,” which sympathetically portrays a gay funeral director in rural East Texas who befriends a crabby, rich elderly woman. In the film, starring Jack Black, Shirley MacLaine and Matthew McConaughey, the crabby old lady treats Bernie so badly that he just can’t take it anymore. He shoots her, then stuffs her inside her own garage deep-freezer. Everyone in the film just loves Bernie and defends him to the hilt.

That’s the Hollywood version. In real life, Bernie Tiede was the quintessential scam artist who preyed on an elderly woman’s loneliness after her husband’s death. He systematically stole millions of dollars from her and continued to spend her money even after he killed her. Tiede was such a convincing con artist that Linklater, Black and others continued to defend him, even after Tiede was convicted and sent to prison, where he very deservedly resides today.

The real story offers a glimpse of scams raging across the United States targeting seniors. The problem has reached epidemic proportions in large part because of the internet and the ability of scam artists to access enough information on vulnerable individuals to fool them into giving away hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars.

If you’re a senior citizen reading this, it’s time to hone your skepticism skills and boost your defenses against exploitation. If you’re one of the millions of not-so-senior adults looking after someone who might be vulnerable, important tools are available to help detect fraud and fight it before disaster strikes.

Marketplace,” which airs twice daily on St. Louis Public Radio, devoted several days to an in-depth series in May on the many ways fraudsters target society’s most vulnerable. The series focused on why the elderly tend to be particularly susceptible. Research on the human brain and aging affirms that some seniors lose their ability to detect fraud and potential scams as they age. Scammers know this. The rest of the public might not.

Total losses vary from $2.9 billion to $36 billion each year from financial exploitation. The estimates vary so widely because a large number of scams are never reported.

Fraudsters use a wide array of sophisticated tools to cheat people out of their money — often with the victims serving as willing, ongoing accomplices. Many scams involve winning the victim’s confidence and friendship, which makes the illusion particularly hard to break when family members try to intervene. That was the case in the story of Bernie Tiede’s scam against his real-life victim, Marjorie Nugent.

Ego plays a role because the victim doesn’t want to admit he or she has been swindled. A fear of loneliness also contributes to the unwillingness to let go.

One such victim was octogenarian Art Schreiber, who moved in with his son’s family near St. Louis after his spouse died. The irony in Schreiber’s story is that he spent his career fighting scams as Missouri’s top insurance-fraud regulator. If anyone should have been equipped with defenses to detect a scam, Schreiber was the one. But right under his son Chad’s nose, Schreiber fell victim to fraudsters who used a combination of phone calls, email and postal-service mail to fool him into handing over hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Chad Schreiber tried repeatedly to intervene but the scamming persisted. Finally, Chad diverted his father from one prospective delivery of cash to a scammer and instead drove him to the family’s local bank, where Art Schreiber received a heart-to-heart talk with a bank official about the need to rebuild his defenses. Chad set up his own website, ItHappenedToDad.com, to alert others to the vulnerabilities.

The stories of elderly exploitation can be heartbreaking in their cruelty. One woman was befriended by a man overseas who convinced her that they were soul mates and that, if she could only send him enough money, he would meet her to get married. She sent him loads of cash, but when the day came for them to meet, he never appeared for their overseas rendezvous.

Another scammer had convinced a woman, identified only as Judy in the Marketplace series, to repeatedly go to Walmart and purchase store gift cards worth varying amounts. He would call her from abroad and ask her to read the numbers off the back of the cards. She wound up losing nearly $200,000.

“I look back, and I can’t imagine what I was thinking,” Judy said. “I was like a robot.”

Imposters posing as government agents will phone the elderly and convince them to give up Social Security numbers or other key financial data. Others declare that the victim has won a lottery or other prize. Some, including Art Schreiber, are told that just a little cash up front can yield big financial returns — only the requests for more and more investment money never seem to stop.

Then there are those annoying robocalls that start out with something like, “Hey, this is Rachel from Cardholder Services.” Most of us know to hang up the phone and block the caller. But a surprising number of seniors fall for it. Even former FBI Director William Webster and his wife were targeted in a 2014 lottery scam that later included death threats. The scammer, calling from Jamaica, was eventually captured.

Various government agencies and private organizations can offer free help, including the Federal Trade Commission, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the FBI, the National Center on Elder Abuse, AARP and the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging fraud hotline. Don’t be a victim.