According to the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), each year, millions of elderly Americans fall victim to some type of financial fraud. Their losses total more than $3 billion per year.
Since 2014, cybercrimes against older adults have increased 400 percent, and that's only for self-reported crimes. Researchers believe the real numbers are probably much higher. The average dollar loss for a senior who’s been scammed online is $41,800, according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
Criminals target seniors because they may be lonely, are typically trusting and polite, and because they usually have financial savings, own a home, and have good credit. Scammers contact them by phone or email, impersonating IRS agents, sweepstakes personnel, or even grandchildren kidnappers to achieve their goals.
Some pose as Medicare representatives to get seniors to give them personal information, or as financial advisors to gain access to the victims’ retirement funds. Because seniors may be less inclined to report fraud, these criminals often get away with it.
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has called on Congress to take more steps to protect older consumers from fraud. In the meantime, here are some precautions you can take to protect yourself.
1. Be Aware of the Common Types of Scams
According to the FBI, there are common types of fraud schemes that often victimize older adults. Being aware of these can help you identify them when they occur so that you're less likely to be fooled.
The criminal poses as an interested romantic partner on social media or dating websites to capitalize on the senior’s desire for companionship. They later ask for money for supposed medical emergencies, hotel expenses, or visas. According to the FTC, seniors lost nearly $84 million in romance scams in 2019 alone.
Tech Support Scam
The criminal poses as a technology support representative to fix non-existent computer issues. This way, they gain access to the victim’s devices and personal information. Microsoft estimates that 3.3 million Americans are victims of technical support scams annually.
The criminal poses as a relative, usually a child or grandchild, that is in dire financial need. They may also claim to be holding the victim's grandchild for ransom.
Government Impersonation Scam
The criminal poses as a government employee (often an IRS or social security representative) and threatens to arrest or prosecute the victim unless they send money. According to the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration, more than 2.4 million Americans have been targeted by scammers impersonating IRS officials.
Medicare/Health Insurance Scam
The criminal poses as a representative from Medicare or a private insurance company to get victims to give them personal information, or to provide bogus services and then bill Medicare for the money. Some criminals may also try to sell the victim on disease-specific insurance—coverage for cancer, for instance.
The criminal claims to work for a legitimate charitable organization to gain the victim’s trust, or claims the victim has won a foreign lottery or sweepstake, which they can collect for a “fee.” According to the FCC, the number of sweepstakes scams increased by 45.8 percent between 2013 and 2017.
Scammers create a charity or pose as a representative from a real charity to gain money from victims. They often capitalize on current events, setting up fundraising pages or crowdsourcing sites after natural disasters or other tragic events.
Home Repair Scam
The criminal appears at the victim’s home and charges in advance for home improvement services that they never provide.
The criminal uses illegitimate advertisements about legitimate services—such as reverse mortgages or credit repair—to get the victim to call and pay money.
Robocallers dial large numbers of households, and when someone answers, use a variety of techniques to cheat victims. Some claim a car or product warranty is expiring and payment is needed to renew it. Others simply say, “Can you hear me?”, then record the voice and use it to authorize unwanted charges on items like stolen credit cards.
Criminals create pop-up browser windows simulating virus-scanning software to fool victims into downloading a fake anti-virus program (at a substantial cost) or an actual virus that will open whatever is on the computer to scammers. Emails that look like they’re from a bank or other company the victim trusts will request personal information.
Lawsuit or Arrest Threats
The criminal pretends to be from a law enforcement agency and threatens a lawsuit or arrest if the victim does not pay a fine immediately. They often say the penalty was issued for failing to report for jury duty or not paying taxes.
The victim’s family members, caregiver, or acquaintances take advantage of them.
2. Never Respond to Urgent Requests
Most scammers will try to get victims to pay up quickly, so they can disappear with the money. They will do whatever they can to create a sense of urgency, pressuring the victim to act immediately before they have time to think.
If you feel pressured to give your information “now” or send a payment “immediately” because someone is in danger, don’t fall for it. It is always best to take your time to think it over. Then research the individual or organization, check to see if your grandchild is missing (for example), or ask a family member what they think before taking action.
3. Never Give Sensitive Information Over the Phone or Email
Unless you know the person well, never give your social security number, credit card number, bank account, PIN, or other sensitive information over the phone. Anyone who asks for this information via these channels is likely trying to scam you. Legitimate companies will not behave this way.
It can also help to shred any printed documents that contain this information, rather than simply throwing it into the trash. Some scammers will search through trash containers to get ahold of information they can use to commit fraud.
4. Do Your Research
When speaking to someone who claims to be a representative from a reputable organization, don’t simply take their word for it. Write down full names, phone numbers, badge numbers, and other forms of information that will confirm the person’s identity. If that person is unwilling to share these types of information, it’s a good bet they are a scammer.
Always double-check any organization, company, or person online before doing business with them. Put the company or product name along with “scam” or “complaint” in the search bar on the Internet to make sure there are no scams related to that entity. You can also research the company on the Better Business Bureau.
5. Rarely Should You Ever Pay “In Advance”
Scammers will try to get you to pay upfront for bogus products and services. Rarely if ever should you agree to this, particularly when it relates to debt relief, credit and loan offer mortgage assistance or a job.
Instead, if you are interested in something, ask the representative to send you an offer in writing, then do further research.
6. Avoid Using Wire Transfers, Money Cards, or Gift Cards
Scammers love receiving payments via these methods because they aren’t easily traced. The villains get the money and disappear and there’s little likelihood that you’ll ever be able to find them again. Realize that legitimate agencies will never ask you to pay this way.
7. Be Extra Cautious with Anyone Who Comes Into Your Home
Scammers often pose as home-care providers or home-service providers to gain access to a victim’s money. If you are looking for an in-home provider for health, housekeeping, meal prep, or other services, always start with an established agency first. You can also get recommendations from family and friends. If you decide to find someone on your own, request references and get a background check on the individual before allowing them into your home.
8. Wait to Sign on the Dotted Line
Never sign a contract without clearly understanding all terms of the agreement. Ask for time to consider it, and then go over it with your lawyer to be sure it’s legitimate. Be skeptical of “free trial” offers and make sure you know how to cancel any memberships. Research the company or individual with whom you’re entering the agreement, and ask friends and family members for their thoughts before moving forward.
9. Use Caution When Shopping Online
It has become much more common to shop online these days, but that has opened the door to increased Internet fraud. Scammers are getting better at creating websites that look legitimate, or that look remarkably like reliable sites like Amazon or store websites.
Only shop with retailers that are well-known companies, and double-check the website every time before making a purchase to be sure you are on the right one. Check the URL address at the top, the contact information, and the overall look and feel of the site
Finally, make sure your passwords are secure. Make them at least eight characters long and include some upper- and lower-case letters, numbers, and special characters like punctuation. It is common to have several passwords for various sites, so use some sort of method to keep track of them all. Options include:
- Use an online password manager like KeePass or Clipperz.
- If you’re a Mac user, your computer probably came with “OSX Keychain,” a password manager that uses your OSX admin password as a master password. It also stays local on your machine, which is more secure.
- Write them down on paper. Yes, if you lose it you could be in trouble, but if you tuck them away somewhere only you know where they are, this can be a secure method.
- Create a spreadsheet on your computer. As long as you don’t upload your files to a cloud, this can be a fairly safe way to keep track of your passwords. If your computer is stolen, change all your passwords.
10. Protect Your Elderly Loved Ones
If you have elderly family members, consider taking these steps to help protect them:
Regularly Call or Visit
Check-in frequently, and be suspicious of your loved one has a new “best friend” or insists on having a caregiver present at all times, including during interactions with you. Such a person could be scamming your loved one.
Watch for Sudden Changes
If your loved one is starting to leave bills unpaid, is suddenly and strangely out of money, starts spending wildly, or becomes uncharacteristically secretive about spending, suspect that they are being scammed and find out more.
Take all the steps you can to block robocalls, unsolicited offers for credit, and direct mail marketing. Check these sites for each:
- Opt-out of offers for credit or insurance.
- Check the cell phone for “whitelisting” tools that allow calls only from numbers in the contact list. Update this list as needed with new wanted numbers.
- Ask your phone carrier about robocall blocking features they may offer.
- Opt-out of direct mail advertisements.
Set Up Banking Safeguards
If you have an elderly relative that is struggling with financial decision-making, consider setting up a separate small local account for them with a spending limit and debit card. Save their other finances in another separate, more secure account.
You can also ask financial institutions to send statements and alerts to a trusted person who has no direct access to the accounts, so that person can keep an eye out for possible fraud.
What If I’m a Victim of a Scam?
If you or a loved one has been a victim of a scam, follow these steps:
- Stop all contact with the scammer.
- If you’ve sent money to the scammer or given them personal information, call your bank or credit union to let them know you’ve been a victim of fraud. They will freeze your accounts to protect your finances.
- Change all your passwords for your online accounts, and update your PINs.
- Change your phone number. This can help protect you from follow-up scams. It also secures your identity as some legitimate companies use your phone number for two-factor authentication.
- Block the scammer’s phone number, email address, and social media profiles.
- Report the scam. Contact the Federal Trade Commission to file a complaint.
No one ever thinks that they will fall victim to deception, but the reality is that the individuals that conduct these scams are getting progressively smarter. You need to be cautious and approach every unknown phone or internet interaction with a healthy degree of skepticism. Remember, any reputable company will be able to easily prove its credentials and should not pressure you in any way. The moment you feel bullied, anxious, or coerced, you should be on high alert.
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“Elder Fraud.” Federal Bureau of Investigation. Last modified June 15, 2020. https://www.fbi.gov/scams-and-safety/common-scams-and-crimes/elder-fraud.
Fahs, G., A. Dewan, S. Buccini, and O. Tanner. Centralizing Older Users In Government Design. Aspen Tech Policy Hub, 2019. https://www.aspentechpolicyhub.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/1p_Seniors_v02.pdf.
Fitzgerald, Maggie. “Scams Cheat Older Americans out of Almost $3 Billion a Year. Here's What to Watch for.” CNBC. Last modified February 13, 2019. https://www.cnbc.com/2019/02/13/older-americans-lose-almost-3-billion-a-year-to-scams.html.
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“Top 10 Financial Scams Targeting Seniors.” The National Council on Aging. Accessed March 19, 2021. https://www.ncoa.org/article/top-10-financial-scams-targeting-seniors.
Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration Semiannual Report to Congress: April 1, 2018 – September 30, 2018. Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration, 2018. https://www.treasury.gov/tigta/semiannual/semiannual_sept2018.pdf.