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Protecting Older People from Scams

Protecting the Older People in Our Lives from Becoming Victims of Scams

In the last two decades, the over-65 population of the world has greatly increased, and so has the average life expectancy. In the same period there have been dramatic advances in technology as well as a surge in the number of technological devices in most homes. A January 2022 Pew Research study found that 75% of adults over 65 in the United States are using the internet regularly. This increased use of technology brings a heightened risk of fraud for all Americans. In this article we will address the most prevalent scams that target our senior citizens and provide simple advice on how to protect yourself and your elderly loved ones.

Why are Older Americans Targeted by Scammers?

Healthy and ailing seniors are equally targeted, as scammers repeatedly go after the life savings of the older generation. According to the Federal Reserve, at the end of Q1 of 2022 Americans age 55 and up controlled 67.7% of all of the wealth in the U.S. while representing only 21% of the population. Scammers take advantage of the lack of experience and knowledge about computers and cybersecurity among seniors to target this most vulnerable population that represents the biggest pay-off using ever-advancing technology and often intimidation and fear to hone their skills to steal the most money from the most people they can.

Why Many Scams Against Seniors Go Unreported

Falling for a scam is often a source of embarrassment for older Americans as they, and their loved ones, may see this event as a sign of cognitive decline. But falling prey to these scams shouldn’t be a source of embarrassment, as the individuals committing these acts of fraud are highly trained experts. They successfully target people of all ages, all economic and educational backgrounds. These professional criminals know what to say and how to say it to sound incredibly convincing, while adding a sense of urgency that the claim they are making must be handled immediately to avoid financial ruin. Even so, among the elderly population falling victim to a scam is more likely to go unreported, either out of embarrassment, shame or fear, or simply not realizing that a crime has been committed. The real numbers are likely even higher, because many of these thefts go unreported, either out of shame or lack of awareness that a crime has taken place. Unfortunately, the average amount people lose in a single scam increases with their age, but ranges from $600 to $1,600. This is only an average. Many higher value scams have also been reported, some upwards of hundreds of thousands of dollars.


Most Common Scams Targeting Seniors

According to a recent report from the National Council on Aging (NCOA), Scams targeting older adults are on the rise. In 2021, there were 92,371 older victims of fraud resulting in $1.7 billion in losses. The five most common scams are summarized below, along with what to do to protect yourself and especially the seniors in your life.

1. Government Impersonation Scams

If you receive a call from someone claiming to be from a government agency, such as the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), the Social Security Administration, or Medicare be wary. Impersonators will attempt to convince you that they are acting on behalf of a legitimate agency. Never give out personal information on the phone or online when you received a call. Hang up and call back at a published number for the agency, not a number provided to you by the caller. The impersonator may try to use intimidation tactics to scare you, such as saying that you owe taxes, threatening to seize your assets or send you to jail if you don't act quickly. They may threaten to cut off your social security or medical benefits. Don't be fooled. They are trying to get you to respond in the moment. A legitimate agency will never use these tactics. Remember, when in doubt... CHECK IT OUT. A legitimate representative of a government agency will understand if you state that you are going to call back to verify that this information is correct and not fraud.

2. Sweepstakes and Prize Scams

With the lure and excitement of winning something valuable, many victims willingly enter their bank account details to "validate their account" to receive the prize, only to find out later that funds have been removed from their account rather than added to it. Some scammers will invoke the name of well-known prize organizations, like Publishers Clearing House, to instill trust, then ask for a credit card number of personal information, all with the intent to commit identity theft. Vacation scams might indicate a deep discount on a property that either doesn’t exist or isn’t owned by the person listing it. These offers will often stress the urgency of making a down payment immediately to lock in the discounted price. Once a victim falls prey to the scam, they may receive multiple requests for information or money from the fraudsters extending over months, or even years.

3. Robo Call Scams

Robocalls takes advantage of phone technology to call thousands of phone numbers simultaneously hoping to find that one caller that will hold on the line long enough for a scammer to then pick up the call. The robocall that everyone knows well is the expiring car warranty. These types of calls continue because they work based on the numbers of calls that are made across the country. If a person, in particular an elder American actually takes this call they may end up purchasing unwanted and unneeded items or worse. These robocalls are also used by criminals to phish for personal information using a variety of pretenses. One very simple and dangerous technique used by scammers is the "Can you hear me?" scam. In this scam the caller starts the conversation by saying "Can you hear me?" They record the older person saying "yes". Whether it is a phony product or an intimidation scheme, claiming an "impending lawsuit" or fines from a government agency or police, the scammer goes on to convince the elder person to provide a credit card number. If the senior later objects to the charges, the scammer can use the recorded "yes" to state that the elder "consented" to the charges.

4. Computer Tech Support Scams

Whether it is a website pop-up, an email, or a phone call, Tech Support scams continue to be an effective way to dupe unsuspecting people into providing confidential information, credit card information and worse, remote control to their computer. Older citizens who may lack knowledge about computers and cybersecurity are particularly vulnerable to this scam, which goes like this. A pop-up message or blank screen appears on a computer or phone telling the victim their device is damaged and needs an urgent fix or data, especially precious photos, could be lost forever. When the victim calls the provided support number for help, the scammer will try to gather as much information as they can, which will help them commit other forms of fraud or identity theft. The cyber criminal may also request remote access to the older person’s computer, which may allow them access to credit card and bank account information. The fraudster may claim that there is a small fee for the service, not much so that it does not set off any alerts, but the real prize is the credit card number provided for the payment which can be used for additional fraudulent transactions later. According to the FBI's 2021 Elder Fraud Report the Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) fielded 13,900 tech support fraud complaints from older victims who suffered nearly $238 million in losses.

5. The Grandparent Scam

Many Americans over the age of 55 have grandchildren. As a person approaches age 70 and up, those grandchildren may be teenagers or young adults. This is a predictable audience for perpetrators of The Grandparent Scam. A caller may start the call with an urgent or upset tone, saying, "Hi, Grandpa, do you know who this is?" This question instantly lowers defenses as it implies that this must be someone you know. If an unaware grandparent says the name of a grandchild the scammer will confirm, instantly securing their trust. "Is this Billy?" "Yes, it's Billy, Grandpa. I'm in trouble." The scammer will go on to ask for money for urgent financial needs, such as a disabled vehicle, school loans, or jail bond. The criminal will ask that the grandparent to pay via gift cards or money transfer, so they can access the money and remain anonymous. In other versions of this scam the caller may pretend that they are an arresting officer or lawyer, even going so far as pretending to be a courier hired by the grandchild and going to the home of the elder to pick up cash or cards.


While these five scams count as the most prevalent, they are by no means the end of the line.


Other Scams to Watch Out For

Counterfeit Prescription Drugs, COVID Prevention, and Fake Anti-Aging Products. These prevalent online scams are useful to criminals to gather credit card and other personal information of unsuspecting seniors by selling substandard or completely ineffective treatments, which is not only a financial risk but a health risk as well.

Fake Employment Opportunities. NCOA states that Over 15 million (or roughly 1 in 3) older adults aged 65+ are economically insecure, with an average annual income of only $25,760. In addition, these seniors may see a need to help other family members with their financial challenges. These situations make the elderly especially susceptible to fake “work from home” scams. The purpose of this scam is to gain the personal information of the senior, especially their Social Security number, which the scammer can sell on the black market or use for identity theft, further complicating the victim's financial woes.

Sweetheart Scams. Those who have recently lost a spouse or are isolated due to medical concerns or other circumstances are especially vulnerable to people seeking to form a bond through friendship or romance. Unfortunately, heartless and unscrupulous scammers know this as well. People you meet on the internet could have a long-term motive (a year or more) to gain the trust and access to the savings of unsuspecting seniors. People age 70+experience the highest incidence with the average loss per victim of almost $10,000.

How Can You Better Protect Yourself and Your Loved One? Follow these tips from the FBI.

  • Recognize scam attempts and end all communication with the perpetrator.
  • Search online for the contact information (name, email, phone number, addresses) and the proposed offer. Other people have likely posted information online about individuals and businesses trying to run scams.
  • Resist the pressure to act quickly. Scammers create a sense of urgency to produce fear and lure victims into immediate action. Call the police immediately if you feel there is a danger to yourself or a loved one.
  • Be cautious of unsolicited phone calls, mailings, and door-to-door services offers.
  • Never give or send any personally identifiable information, money, jewelry, gift cards, checks, or wire information to unverified people or businesses.
  • Make sure all computer anti-virus and security software and malware protections are up to date. Use reputable anti-virus software and firewalls.
  • Disconnect from the internet and shut down your device if you see a pop-up message or locked screen. Pop-ups are regularly used by perpetrators to spread malicious software. Enable pop-up blockers to avoid accidentally clicking on one.
  • Be careful what you download. Never open an email attachment from someone you don't know, and be wary of email attachments forwarded to you.
  • Take precautions to protect your identity if a criminal gains access to your device or account. Immediately contact your financial institutions to place protections on your accounts, and monitor your accounts and personal information for suspicious activity.

How Can You Protect Your Loved Ones?

  • Keep your elderly family members and friends up to date about scams that are circulating online.
  • Ensure that a trusted family member or financial advisor is keeping an eye on loved ones’ bank and retirement accounts, watching for suspicious withdrawals.
  • Stay in touch! Regular visits and phone calls will keep you connected with your loved ones, lessening their chance of falling victim to a scam that targets those who feel isolated. In addition, your family member might mention a strange email, a new way to get their medicine, or a sweepstakes they have entered - all of these are red flags that you can follow up on.
  • Share articles like this one with them and with others who help with caregiving needs. Staying current about what techniques scammers are using is the best form of protection.

As mentioned, a primary or secondary motive in these scams is collecting personal information that the criminal or others later use to commit identity theft. If you feel that you or an elderly family member has fallen victim to identity theft, call us immediately to speak to one of our Identity Theft Recovery Advocates. Quickly recognizing and addressing the issue will minimize damage to your accounts and your identity. As a Peace of Mind Checking account holder, you have access to specialists around the clock who can answer your questions, address your concerns, and advise you on the best next steps to get back on track.

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