According to the National Council on Aging, older adults suffer annual financial losses of about $3 billion to fraud schemes. These heartless crimes can devastate victims, who are often on meager fixed incomes and reliant on their savings. In most cases, the losses cannot be recovered. That often leaves victims in precarious financial situations. Unfortunately, criminals show no signs of letting up on their victimization of seniors. During the five-year period spanning 2014 to 2019, cybercrimes targeting older U.S. adults increased by more than 500%. Learning how to recognize and avoid these scams is the best way to defend against them.
Why Do Criminals Target Seniors So Often?
Three main trends combine to create an explanation of why criminals are so eager to target older people. First, the typical person’s net worth maxes out between the ages of 65 and 74. Thus, criminals generally perceive people in this age range to have more money than victims of other ages.
Second, older people generally have lower levels of technological literacy than younger generations. As a result, they may be less familiar with best practices for safeguarding their data. They may also underestimate or misunderstand prevalent online dangers.
Finally, research shows that older people undergo cognitive changes that make them more likely to trust people. Inversely, that means they are also less likely to mistrust people. As such, they often fail to recognize an unscrupulous person’s true intentions.
Identifying and Avoiding Common Scams
Criminals constantly develop new scams and tactics. They also import established tricks of their dirty trade to new and emerging technological platforms. While the packaging of their scams is always changing, the general strategies and underlying objectives usually remain similar.
Older adults should recognize common points of attack and vulnerabilities targeted by fraudsters. Whether you’re a senior citizen yourself or just want to have an educational conversation with your parents, here are some of the most common scam tactics you should watch out for.
Tax Scams (and Other Government Scams)
This scam begins with a telephone call or email message “from” an agency like the Internal Revenue Service. It claims the targeted individual has an outstanding tax balance and that immediate payment is necessary to avoid criminal charges or imprisonment.
Variations on the scam can focus on the victim’s Social Security Administration benefits or government healthcare coverage too. Criminals will claim the victim’s benefits or health coverage is about to expire, then offer to correct the problem. In so doing, the victim will be tricked into giving out personal information, such as their Social Security Number.
Criminals often use spoofing software to make the phone number they are calling from seem legitimate. This adds to the scam’s sense of authenticity.
Avoidance strategy: Government agencies never use these tactics to secure delinquent payments or to maintain eligibility for coverage or benefits. If you receive such a call, just hang up. The IRS will send you mail, not call you.
Sometimes, fraudsters engage in more passive, low-pressure variations of this scam. If this happens, ask the caller for their name, phone number, and the agency they represent. Then obtain the agency’s main telephone number from a legitimate source (like their website). Call that number and ask if such a person actually works there. If the original call is legitimate, the person on the other end will not hesitate to supply the requested details. They will also be verified when you place your call to the legitimate agency.
Older U.S. citizens (and permanent residents) universally qualify for government-issued Medicare or Medicaid health insurance coverage. Scammers know this too, so they target people over age 65 with fraudulent phone calls.
Tactics usually aim to extract sensitive personal information from victims, such as their Social Security Number. The caller may claim to represent Medicare, Medicaid, or the Social Security Administration. They will often state that they are attempting to process a claim, or that they are conducting a routine review of account details.
Avoidance strategy: No legitimate U.S. government agency will attempt to verify account details or personal information via an unsolicited telephone call. If any such information is needed, the agency will contact you by mail and provide a means to independently verify the request.
If you receive this type of call, hang up. Don’t let their scare tactics of fines or lapsed coverage get to you.
Bogus Tech Support Scams
This scam usually begins with an online pop-up, which claims your computer has been infected with a virus. It will give you a number you can call for technical support. If you call the number, a fraudster will attempt to gain remote access to your computer, then seek out sensitive or private information. They may also demand an immediate payment to fix the problem, when no problem actually exists. This scam also comes in the form of phone calls, pretending to be “Microsoft security support” and warning of a similar problem.
Avoidance strategy: Do not seek technical support assistance from anyone who offers help you did not specifically ask for. Never call a number that you found through an online pop-up. If you believe your computer may be infected with a virus, take it to a local IT technician or computer repair shop for service. Or just ask your grandkids for help.
Fraudsters have endless ways of using the phone to dupe victims. Criminals will call seniors claiming that insurance policies, warranties, utility contracts, or other paid services are past due or set to expire. They then offer to extend the coverage or service, extracting credit card details in the process.
Other telephone scams use automated robocalls. These may simply aim to record the victim’s voice, which can then be used to bypass voice-based security measures to access financial accounts.
Avoidance strategy: If you answer the telephone and hear nothing, do not speak. Just hang up. If you hear a question such as “Can you hear me?”, do not say yes. Instead, hang up. Do the same if a robotic voice or pre-recorded message launches into some kind of pitch or solicitation.
Should a human caller contact you, ask the person for their full name and the name of the company or organization they represent. Then, end the call and go look up that company or organization’s phone number yourself. If the situation even progresses to this stage, call the number and ask to speak to the person by name. In most cases, the fraudster will abandon the attempt when you ask them for their details. These scammers want easy targets, so they will bail if you show any sign of being wise to their tactics.
Many seniors are lonely, making them especially vulnerable to dating or romance scams. These scams typically unfold over long periods of time, over which the criminal systematically gains the victim’s trust. The criminal then starts to solicit money from the victim, even if they have never met in person.
Avoidance strategy: If an online love interest starts asking you for money, things could turn sour in a hurry. Your best bet is to refuse any such request, especially if you are pressured or the other person claims to be facing a time-sensitive emergency. The scammer will usually move on to a new victim if you do not give them what they want. On a related note, you should try to verify any potential romantic interest you meet online. Ask for a brief video video chat or phone call (at the very least) to make sure the person is who they say they are.
Older people are particularly vulnerable to common online scams like phishing, identity theft, and e-commerce and online shopping fraud. Viruses, rootkits, and other forms of computer malware also pose high levels of risk.
Avoidance strategy: Do not click on links sent to you in email messages, even if the message appears to come from someone you know. Similarly, do not open message attachments unless you were expecting to receive a digital file from someone. Any file that ends in “.exe” is definitely a no-no, even if it presents itself as an image. A common scam is to send a virus program named something like “cutedog.jpg.exe.” If you’re not paying attention, you’ll misread the filename and open it without thinking twice.
Install reputable antivirus software and keep it running at all times. Windows Defender is included in most newer versions and Malwarebytes has a great free version. These programs can identify and avoid malware and other forms of malicious software.
Lottery and sweepstakes scams typically start with email or telephone contact. The fraudster will claim the victim has won a valuable prize. They then state that in order to claim the prize, the supposed winner needs to purchase something or make a payment.
Avoidance strategy: Legitimate lotteries and sweepstakes draws never require winners to make any payments to claim their prizes. Ignore any claims to the contrary. Delete the email message or hang up on the caller. Always remember that you will never “win” a contest or sweepstakes that you didn’t actually enter in the first place.
These scams play on a seniors’ emotions. They also seek to exploit feelings of self-doubt, and usually begin with a frantic phone call from someone claiming to be a family member (usually a grandchild).
The caller will begin by duping the victim into supplying the family member’s name by saying something like, “Do you know who this is?” or “It’s your grandson/granddaughter.” They want the victim to say the family member’s name so they can learn it and use it for the remainder of the call.
Then, the caller will claim to be in trouble. Their car has broken down. Or they are stranded at an airport or in a faraway city. Maybe they are facing eviction or have been arrested and need bail money. They then elicit the funds from the victim, usually convincing them to dispatch the money as a gift card or cash pickup through a service like Western Union.
Avoidance strategy: If you receive such a call, end it quickly with a promise to call your relative right back. Then, contact the individual the caller claimed to be through a phone number or address that you can verify is actually theirs. If they insist they are unreachable (ie, in another country), call their parents/partner/siblings/whoever, to verify the story. If their request was legitimate, you can decide whether or not to offer your help — after making sure the situation is really happening.
The aforementioned scams are almost always perpetrated by individuals with no personal connection to the victim. Unfortunately, seniors can also be targeted by people they know and trust, including family members. This is known as elder abuse, and financial gain is a common motive. It’s harder to identify, since most seniors will naturally trust their children, grandchildren, or nieces and nephews.
Avoidance strategy: The National Council on Aging offers this excellent resource. It goes into great detail about the many forms of elder abuse, the associated warning signs, and how seniors and their loved ones can protect themselves.
The Bottom Line
Seniors are unfortunately a popular target of fraudsters and criminals. Scammers usually try to trick older adults into sending them money or revealing private data such as Social Security Numbers, bank account information, or credit card details. They commonly make contact through unsolicited phone calls or email messages, and seek to extract data or funds without ever meeting the victim face-to-face.
Legitimate companies, organizations, and government agencies never use high-pressure tactics to solicit information or payments. They will also readily supply verifiable information so you can confirm their identity. Anyone using threats or other aggressive methods should be considered a scammer. The same is true of anyone who hesitates to give you their name, phone number, or other personal contact details.
Organizations like the National Council on Aging and the National Center on Elder Abuse offer extensive resources that seniors and their family members can use to stay safe and avoid scams.