Sharon Sweeney, 77, lost $20,000 when scammers contacted her posing as government agents. (Photo courtesy of Sharon Sweeney via San Jose Spotlight)

SHARON SWEENEY was driving back from Home Depot when she received a call from an unknown number that would eventually end in costly consequences.

The caller introduced himself as Robert. He was the first of multiple people Sweeney, 77, talked to that day who posed as government agents. They created a collection of falsified documents and claims to scare her, Sweeney said, and even convinced her to sign a fake nondisclosure agreement to steer her away from telling any family, friends or the authorities. The scammers had her on the line for hours.

Under their direction, Sweeney withdrew $20,000 from her bank account that she sent to the scammers via Bitcoin, digital currency that is difficult to track her money gone forever.

“It leaves you feeling terribly vulnerable (and) constantly asking questions of yourself. Why didn’t I see the red flags?”

Sharon Sweeney, victim

“It (was) mind control,” Sweeney told San José Spotlight. “It leaves you feeling terribly vulnerable (and) constantly asking questions of yourself. Why didn’t I see the red flags?”

Not only was the $20,000 a large sum of money she will never get back, it was also the savings her husband, former Mercury News journalist Frank Sweeney, had set aside before he died in 2021. The ordeal left her in shock and to cope she is now in therapy to deal with the emotional aftermath.

‘Hideous’ financial elder abuse

Sweeney’s experience is not uncommon. According to the FBI’s 2022 Elder Fraud Report, those over the age of 60 saw $3.1 billion in financial loss across the nation. California topped the list in the number of elderly victims due to fraud, with more than 11,500 instances last year. That equates to more than $620 million in losses.

“(These scams) are taking money out of our community, huge sums of money,” Sweeney said.

Cherie Bourlard, deputy district attorney for Santa Clara County, said older adults are targeted by scammers because they might have significant savings, valuable possessions or a lot of equity in their homes. She said they are also more prone to scams since they may not be as readily tech-savvy, are more trusting or may have physical or cognitive impairment.

“Financial elder abuse is hideous, because when elders are targeted, they are less resilient to recover financially,” Bourlard told San José Spotlight. “It is devastating because it occurs in their golden years.”

Older adults are most commonly targeted by family members, care givers, friends and strangers, according to Bourlard. She said the scams commonly come in the form of sweepstakes, people impersonating government officials, technology scams and scams that happen via online romantic relationships.

Bourlard said it is important for loved ones to check on their older family members to help protect them against potential scams. She also said victims can contact Adult Protective Services, local law enforcement, the Federal Trade Commission or FBI to report scams. She said the Santa Clara County District Attorney’s Office has an elder fraud hotline, 1-855-DA-ELDER or 1-855-323-5337, for residents to ask questions about a claim’s legitimacy.

Sweeney said she hopes her story can help prevent other people from being scammed.

“It’s been so hard on me that I don’t want to see anyone else suffer like this,” Sweeney said.

Contact Julia Forrest at julia@sanjosespotlight.com or follow @juliaforrest35 on Twitter.

This story originally appeared in San Jose Spotlight.