Top scams targeting seniors include identify theft, sweepstakes, home repairs, romance and investments frauds.
It used to be that holidays were the prime time for targeting the elderly, but now it’s year-round.
Seniors lose an estimated $2.9 billion each year to financial scams, according to a recent Congressional report
The vast majority of cases of elder exploitation involve family members, aides and other trusted people.
But strangers also prey on a population the crooks see as more vulnerable and trusting.
Scams against seniors are perpetrated in person, but these days, most of them arrive on the phone and online.
In 2023, a woman was scammed out of her $650,000 retirement fund, and then had to pay thousands of dollars in taxes on her loss, bankrupting her.
It’s a double whammy, because the IRS no longer allows you to deduct such losses.
Some scams come with threats.
An elderly woman in the Chicago area was scammed out of most of her life savings by someone posing as an officer of the Dept. of Homeland Security, accusing her of laundering money for criminals.
According to CBS News, she lost $230,000. It’s the latest version of the “you’ll be arrested if you don’t pay” scam.
Cyber security investigators reportedly traced the scammer back to the island of Malta, in the Mediterranean.
Other scammers are based in Nigeria, Bulgaria, Romania, but some are in the USA. In August 2019, the FBI arrested dozens of scammers living in the Los Angeles area.
A federal indictment charging 80 people with stealing at least $46 million through various schemes that targeted businesses, the elderly and anyone susceptible to a romance scam. Most of the defendants are Nigerians.
We’ve all heard the sad stories:
As fast as law enforcement officials crack down on one case of fraud against older Americans, another pops up.
And one of the roughly 10,000 people a day who turn 65 falls for another old scheme with a new twist.
“Every year, hundreds of thousands of seniors are victims of financial fraud and theft,” says Ann Harkins, president and CEO of the National Crime Prevention Council, which has an entire section of its website devoted to crimes and scams against seniors.
Scams Against the Elderly are Under-Reported
Many scams against seniors go unreported because the victims are embarrassed and afraid they will lose independence if their children find out they’ve been deceived.
Fear of looking stupid also often keeps seniors from sharing doubts with friends and family.
Seniors who are socially isolated are especially vulnerable to these scams.
Surprisingly, the group that is mostly likely to be victimized is well-educated men 55 and older, because they think they are savvy and know how to protect themselves.
Experts advise that you never do business with someone who calls you out of the blue, or sends you an email from a free account like gmail.
Instead, have a practiced “no” script, such as “I don’t buy products over the phone” or “I don’t talk to solicitors”.
Put email senders in your junkmail folder and delete them from there.
If you think the offer is legitimate, ask the caller to put it in writing and mail it to you and hang up.
Pressure to act immediately is a sign of a scam.
Anything that sounds too good to be true probably is.
- I keep a loud whistle near the phone extension I use the most.
- I give a couple of long toots if I happen to answer a scammer call.
- If I damage the scammer’s ears with a couple of blasts on the whistle, well, that’s just too bad.
Another excellent resource is AARP Foundation ElderWatch, which engages hundreds of volunteers each year to help older consumers recognize, refuse and report fraud and scams.
Someone knocks at your door and wants to talk about the fence in your backyard. While you are distracted out back, an accomplice robs your house.
Home repair scams
Beware of people who knock on your door and offer home repair services. Some are casing your home to rob you later. Others will overcharge for a supposed service that either isn’t performed or is done poorly.
Remember that legitimate contractors rarely solicit door to door, and you don’t want to hire anyone to work on your house until you’ve checked licenses and references.
Computer tech scams
A caller pretends to be a representative from Microsoft, McAfee or another tech company. They may seek remote access to your computer for “tech support,” ask for credit card numbers or direct you to a website to enter personal details.
This is always a scam. You may also get similar solicitations via email.
I get regular phone calls from scammers saying they have detected a virus on my Microsoft computer – which is always interesting, since I use a Mac.
That’s when I blast my whistle into the scammer’s ear.
Scammers will call a taxpayer saying money is due and demanding immediate payment via prepaid debit card, threatening arrest, deportation or loss of your driver’s license. If you have caller ID, the number may even show up as IRS.
Simply, the IRS does not phone people. They send letters.
IRS scams are usually in the spring, when folks are working on and filing taxes, but can happen anytime.
Scams threatening arrest if you don’t pay
A variation of the IRS scam has the caller saying he is from the sheriff’s office, clerk of courts or other agency, threatening arrest if the target doesn’t pay for an infraction such as missing jury duty or driving with an expired license.
The caller demands payment immediately, via wire transfer or a gift card, which is a telltale sign of a scam.
Seniors are especially vulnerable because the callers are aggressive, and it’s easy to become terrified that the imposter has their address.
Identity theft scams
Someone calls and claims to be from Medicare, your bank, the IRS, your credit card or insurance company or another business you do business with, and asks to verify your credit card numbers or other personal information.
Never give personal information over the phone unless you initiated the call. Never. Ever. Period.
The same advise applies to an email sender you do not recognize. Never reply with your personal financial information.
See several ecoXplorer reports on avoiding identity theft:
Lottery and sweepstakes scams
Someone approaches the victim in a public place, saying she has won the lottery but can’t claim the prize because she entered the country illegally.
The scammer asks the victim to withdraw money from the bank to show good faith, or to pay taxes on winnings.
Using a similar scam with a different twist, the scammer calls via telephone and says the victim has won a big prize but needs to pay upfront for taxes before the prize can be delivered.
Never pay up-front to get winnings. Never.
Grandchild in trouble scams
A crying young person calls, saying he or she needs your help.
He or she has has been arrested and needs money to get out of jail, or has been in a car accident, or his or her wallet was stolen. Or something similar.
The connection may be intentionally bad, so Grandma or Pops thinks it is really a grandchild, and Grandma or Pops doesn’t .
Worse, the frightened grandparent does not verify that a beloved grandchild is on spring break in Mexico.
Another variation of this scheme is via email, claiming that a friend or relative as been robbed in another country and needs money to get home.
Recently, I got a scam call from a “grandson” with a foreign accent that my real grandson does not have.
That’s when I blast my whistle into the scammer’s ear.
Dating scams are as old as the hills, and Internet dating has made them easy to proliferate.
A prospective relationship claims to be wealthy, then emails he or she doesn’t have cash at the moment, or will ask for money for a “sure thing” investment.
People who engage in online romantic relationships with people they have not met in person are in a prime position to be cheated.
Sweetheart scams tend to crop up around Christmas, New Year’s and Valentine’s Day, when it’s especially lonely for seniors living far from family.
And that is likely to happen even more this holiday season, since more of us are separated by Covid-19 travel restrictions.
Seniors are frequently offered an educational free lunch, which is really a hard pitch sales presentation.
No investment should be entered into without significant investigation, and that includes investigating the person offering to sell you the product.
Be wary of cold calls from people who claim to be investment advisors, or of investments with high returns or any scheme that promises guaranteed returns.
Be wary of promises, or guarantees, of huge returns on investments.
Seniors with substantial assets should cultivate a relationship with a trusted financial advisor who has been vetted thoroughly and is known to your friends and relatives.
The Financial Industry Regulatory Authority has a FINRA Securities Helpline for Seniors (844-57-HELPS or 844-574-3577). Callers can ask questions about investments and advisors, including help vetting advisors.
Power of attorney scams
Thousands of seniors lose everything in their bank accounts, even their homes, by giving power of attorney to an aide, relative or trusted neighbor, who may say it’s just so he or she can your bills on your behalf, to make your life easier.
Be wary because Power of Attorney actually grants significantly more financial power than just bill paying.
Ask a lawyer you trust whether you need such concentrated financial power.
Or, use a power of attorney that covers a single transaction, like rent.
This article was published originally in 2015 and is updated at least twice a year and re-published.
Have you been scammed?
Let us know, so we can help you.
ecoXplorer Evelyn Kanter is a journalist with 25+ years of experience as a newspaper and magazine writer, radio & TV news producer & reporter, and author of guidebooks and smartphone apps – all focusing on travel, automotive, the environment and your rights as a consumer.
ecoXplorer Evelyn Kanter currently serves as President of the International Motor Press Assn. (IMPA), a former Board Member of the Society of American Travel Writers (SATW) and a current member of the North American Travel Journalists Assn. (NATJA) and the North American Snowsports Journalists Assn. (NASJA).
Contact me at email@example.com.
Copyright (C) Evelyn Kanter