Scams targeting seniors are becoming a major epidemic for two reasons. First, seniors often have a lot of money in the bank from a life of working hard and saving. Second, seniors often aren’t aware of common scams, how they work, and they may be more trusting due to the time period they were raised in. Or, due to memory issues and dementia, seniors can be manipulated more easily. Scams that victimize seniors are considered elder abuse, and the FBI and local law enforcement are cracking down on these types of crimes.
What is a Senior Scam?
A senior scam is a crime where someone tries to trick, coerce, or bully an elder American out of their hard-earned money. It can happen in a variety of different ways. Surprisingly, a lot of this financial abuse is perpetrated by family members or those closest to the senior. Experts state that roughly $36 billion is lost to these types of scams every year. The AARP claims that each victim loses an average of $120,000.
Fraud Tips from the FBI
The FBI has a webpage to help seniors and their families avoid this terrible type of fraud. Some common reasons that seniors are targeted are:
“Senior citizens are most likely to have a “nest egg,” to own their home, and/or to have excellent credit—all of which make them attractive to con artists.
People who grew up in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s were generally raised to be polite and trusting. Con artists exploit these traits, knowing that it is difficult or impossible for these individuals to say “no” or just hang up the telephone.
Older Americans are less likely to report a fraud because they don’t know who to report it to, are too ashamed at having been scammed, or don’t know they have been scammed. Elderly victims may not report crimes, for example, because they are concerned that relatives may think the victims no longer have the mental capacity to take care of their own financial affairs.
When an elderly victim does report the crime, they often make poor witnesses. Con artists know the effects of age on memory, and they are counting on elderly victims not being able to supply enough detailed information to investigators. In addition, the victims’ realization that they have been swindled may take weeks—or more likely, months—after contact with the fraudster. This extended time frame makes it even more difficult to remember details from the events.
Senior citizens are more interested in and susceptible to products promising increased cognitive function, virility, physical conditioning, anti-cancer properties, and so on. In a country where new cures and vaccinations for old diseases have given every American hope for long and fruitful life, it is not so unbelievable that the con artists’ products can do what they claim.”
Top Senior Scams to be Aware Of
Below are some of the most common elderly scams targeting seniors and how you can protect yourself against them.
Prescription Drug Scams
Fraudsters place ads or email seniors about prescription drugs that cost far less than their normal pharmacy charges. Many older Americans are on a budget and are desperate to save where they can. They may be taken in by this scam, which is dangerous because often counterfeit drugs do not have the correct ingredients, will not help their condition, and are designed simply to make money.
Most seniors are eligible for Medicare, but the costs may still be high for some out-of-pocket expenses. Fraudsters will contact older people to provide help with paperwork or offer medical services at a lower cost, but their real objective is simply to get their hands on their personal information (like social security number) to steal their identity and their life savings.
Catfishing/Online Dating Scam
Seniors can often be more trusting and, therefore, vulnerable to catfishing or online dating scams. These are when someone pretends to be someone else online and forms a close relationship with the senior. Then, after they get them to trust, they coerce money out of them to help with a medical emergency or some other family situation. Sadly, these types of scams can go on for weeks or even years and drain the finances of some older citizens.
Phishing scams work by sending the victim an email that looks like it came from their bank, credit union, or other trusted organization. Using high-quality graphics and logos, the email appears to be legitimate. However, when the person clicks on the link inside the email, their computer may be infected with malware, ransomware, or other viruses, which allows the hackers to take over and steal information. In other cases, those links take the victim to a faked website where they enter their login credentials or other personal details, and now identity thieves have it.
Telemarketing scams are not new, but roughly 80% of them target senior citizens. Callers may try to sell elder Americans everything from insurance, medicine, and investments. They may instead ask for donations or offer revolutionary anti-aging products. Scammers promise all sorts of things to urge seniors to hand over credit card information over the phone, and then the products or services never appear. They were duped out of money without even knowing it.
Tech Support Scam
Another popular scam making the rounds is when a call comes in from Microsoft or Apple informing the senior citizens that their computer is infected or being used illegally, and they have to fix it and pay a fee. Sometimes the caller will instruct the user how to allow them to access their computer remotely. Then the caller will install malware or ransomware on the machine and steal even more information. Sometimes these calls are designed to bilk payments for fake antivirus software to clean up infections that aren’t even real. A lot of seniors don’t understand technology, so they trust when they see spoofed phone numbers on their caller ID.
Social Security Fraud
A lot of older people are on social security, and they need that money to survive. When a fraudster calls them telling them their social security number has been suspended or has been used for illegal activity, the senior may panic. These scammers can even spoof the phone call to make it look like it is coming from the Social Security Administration. The thing is, the SSA never suspends social security numbers or benefits and does not call to ask for a fee for issuing a new social security number or fixing the problem.
This one has been on the news a lot lately. An older person gets a phone call, and the caller says, “Grandma? It’s me… I am in trouble, and I need money.” Often seniors with hearing issues may believe that their grandchild is in trouble and will do anything to help them, including handing over credit card details to pay a “fine” or “bail” to get their grandchild out of trouble. These criminals plead with the grandparent not to tell the parents, which helps to cover up the incident. Unfortunately, none of it is real; it is just a horrible scam to steal money from older people.
Lottery or Advance Fee Scam
A lottery or advance-fee scam is when thieves call the senior citizen and inform them, they have won a prize or a foreign lottery. With the promise of riches on the horizon, many elder Americans jump at the chance and pay the “taxes or fees'' required to release their prize. Unfortunately, after they have paid, the check they received bounces (because it was never real), or their prize never arrives. They eventually realize it was a ploy and they have been scammed.
Reverse Mortgage Scam
A lot of retirees have paid off and now own their homes. A scam targeting them works by criminals using ploys of public records showing the value of their homes and urging seniors to take out a reverse mortgage for cash to travel or invest in some home improvements. Unfortunately, often these are complete shams, and after paying fees or other down payments, the mortgage specialist disappears into the wind, and no new mortgage is ever endorsed.
How to Protect Seniors from Scams
These and other scams specifically target more vulnerable victims, such as people over the age of 50. Some things you can do to avoid being caught in one of these vicious webs are:
Never purchase anything from an unsolicited offer, especially over the phone or the internet.
Be watchful for phishing emails. Never trust that it came from the actual source.
Investigate the “sender’s email address” to make sure you are corresponding with the person you think you are.
Do not give out personal information (like your social security number or credit card info) to anyone over the phone.
If someone tries to bully or coerce you, hang up the phone and report the incident to the FTC.
Do not click links in email or download attachments. Instead, visit the website from a new browser window.
If someone calls you for help, even if you think it is a loved one, call them back on a number you trust to check out the situation before taking any action or handing over any money.
If someone tells you that you have won a lottery (that you don’t remember playing) or won a prize, is it probably a scam. If it sounds too good to be true, it is.
The SSA never suspends or disables anyone’s social security number. If someone calls you representing the SSA, hang up and call the FTC to report it.
Microsoft, Apple, and other tech companies DO NOT call users to let them know their computers have viruses or are involved in illegal activity. Do not engage these fraudsters; hang up the phone immediately.
Never send money to anyone you don’t know (even with online dating). If someone requests you pay them in prepaid gift cards or wire transfers, let this be a big, red flag, you are being scammed.
You cannot be too careful these days when looking out for scams. If you do become a victim, report it, and ask for help from a trusted family member.