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Central Ohio Men Fight Elderly Fraud With A Dose Of Humor

Mike Kessler (left) and Phil Smith (right) speak to senior citizens about how to fight scams.
Debbie Holmes
Mike Kessler (left) and Phil Smith (right) speak to senior citizens about how to fight scams.

Phil Smith, 68, doesn’t look or sound serious when he tells an audience of senior citizens how to avoid scams. That's on purpose.

Smith says adding humor keeps your audience awake.

“By doing it in a humorous way, by not going slide by slide and reading every slide exactly as is, it keeps people engaged,” Smith says.

Smith met Mike Kessler, 71, at a training session for AARP volunteers. Now they help other senior citizens defend themselves against fraud, spreading laughter as they give their PowerPoint presentation.

Last Sunday, the duo spoke at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Columbus in Bexley.

“Notice we put a hypodermic needle there, so it’s a fraud prevention clinic, and we do have hypodermics available,” says Smith.

Smith and Kessler are part of the AARP Fraud Watch Network circuit, and were featured in a recent editionof AARP Magazine.

Credit Debbie Holmes
Mike Kessler (l) and Phil Smith (r) explain how to avoid scams to a group at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Columbus in Bexley.

“I’ve heard that a lot of people of our generation, but not exclusively our generation, have been scammed, and it was a sad thing that people who worked hard their whole life and saved money their whole life would end up getting scammed and lose money which they needed for their family and for retirement,” Smith says.

Smith says victims who attend the presentation are ready to share their stories.

Phyllis Komerofsky sat in to listen a second time. She says an Akron man she knew lost $5,000 to a phone scammer.

“I know one thing that I’m doing right is if I don’t know who it is calling, I don’t answer,” Komerofsy says. “That way I’m not going to get scammed by anybody. If they want me, they’ll leave a message.”

Smith says fraudsters keep changing their methods to cheat the elderly. Phone calls are a significant problem, but recently scammers started using text messages as well.

The scams include phony vacations, lotteries, and robo calls that pretend to be from the Social Security Administration or IRS.

“The latest thing they’re doing is they’re telling people who they’re trying to scam, 'Don’t go to the bank,' because the banks are pushing back and saying, 'Wait a second, you sure you want to do this?'” Smith says. “So they’re telling people, go out and get a gift card at Big Lots or someplace and that way they’re avoiding tracking.”

Kessler says in 2018, there were 1 billion fraud calls per month. Lately, the number is close to 1 billion a week, with more than 60 billion a year in scam and spam calls.

Kessler says his wife’s grandmother almost became a victim by someone posing as her grandchild. The anxious 88-year-old took the time to phone her daughter and found out her grandson was fine. She made the call because she was confused on how to pay the scammer.

“What we’re trying to do is lower anxiety with some people, so that they can hear the message and what they can do to protect themselves, and then we’re trying to raise the anxiety level on other people to say hey, wake up, pay attention, this can happen to anybody,” Kessler says.

AARP Ohio spokeswoman Michelle Shirer says the Mike and Phil Show is gaining popularity. So far, they’ve given 73 presentations throughout the state about fraud prevention.

“They’re actually teaching other volunteers in the Central Ohio area how to give the presentations, as well as helping us statewide, we call it DIY, so we’re teaching more people how to do it,” Shirer says.

Ohio ranks 17th in the country for fraud.

“The older generations, the dollar amount that they’re susceptible to is greater," Shirer says. "Because you think about it, you’ve saved hopefully money, so you have a different level of savings available, and so that makes them targeted."

Smith says the best way to avoid the swindle is simple.

“Don’t answer the phone,” Smith says. 

He also advises seniors to research any company before signing any papers.

Debbie Holmes has worked at WOSU News since 2009. She has hosted All Things Considered, since May 2021. Prior to that she was the host of Morning Edition and a reporter.