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How to Identify and Avoid Scams Targeting Senior Citizens and the Elderly

Scammers will use any means to extort money from those they deem to be the most vulnerable. Often, they target senior citizens. Many seniors are targeted on a daily basis by predatory scammers and con-artists looking to take advantage of them, and keeping your elderly loved ones informed has never been so crucial.

If you’re worried that you or a loved one is being targeted, this guide will help you learn about common scamming methods, how to avoid becoming the target of a scam, how to recognize signs that someone is being affected by a scam, and what to do when you’ve discovered that a scam has taken place.

Common Methods of Contact for Scammers

Those looking to commit fraud will use any possible avenue to achieve their goal. Your phone, email inbox, and even your front door can become entryways for those with malicious intent. Because any method of contact can be used to defraud you or your loved ones, constant vigilance is required. Let’s discuss some of the most common methods of contact for scammers.

Phone/Telemarketing
  • Robocalls and pre-recorded messages: Most people are familiar with those annoying, automated phone calls that implore you to give away your personal information for a promised “free vacation” or some other alluring reward. These illegal calls are designed to gather information in order to steal from you, and robocall scams are on the rise.
  • “Unknown number” or number spoofing: Callers may block their number or use voice over IP software to trick phone networks into believing that they are calling from your area code. Both of these tactics can make it unclear whether the call is legitimate, often leading targets to answer these calls. This opens the door to them being manipulated and possibly scammed.
Email/Internet Browser
  • “Official looking” emails: Scam emails are very frequently designed to look like they originated from Microsoft or Apple. The emails may directly ask for your personal information or login credentials, or it may link to a phishing site — a website that tries to steal your information by tricking you into believing it is authentic.
Door-to-Door Scams
  • Information around your home or in your mail: Scammers may take some time to investigate your home before attempting to scam you. They often look for any stickers, notices, stray mail, and so on from known maintenance or utility companies on your property. Using this information, they will pretend to be an employee to gain access to your home and/or get your personal information.

Identifying the Most Common Scams

In order to defend yourself or your loved ones, you should get familiar with the strategies fraudsters use to exploit the elderly. Let’s take a look at the the most common scams. Learning about these will enable you to anticipate scams and protect yourself or report a suspicious person when needed.

Tech Support Scams

Have you ever received a call, email, or pop-up notification from tech support about a necessary update or software to remove dangerous viruses on your computer, tablet or phone? These “tech support calls” can be a scam.

If you get an email or phone call from a person claiming to be from Microsoft or Apple, be wary. Don’t give these people any information. They may be selling malware-laden software or are simply trying to steal your personal information in order to commit identity theft.

Lottery Scams

If you get a letter in the mail, a phone call, or an email informing you that you’ve won some sort of lottery — one that you’re unaware you were ever entered into — you may be the target of a lottery scam. The “prize money” is often locked behind supposed customs fees, taxes, and other expenses that you’re responsible for. They’ll often take wire transfers, credit card numbers, or even gift cards to pay these fees. The biggest problem with this is that the prize money doesn’t exist.

The easiest way to avoid this scam is to carefully analyze any propositions like this. Some of this boils down to common sense — if you didn’t enter a lottery, it’s extremely unlikely that you would be selected as a winner of one. However, if the lottery seems to be operated by a reputable organization, do some research: contact the group or check their official site for any evidence that the drawing is legitimate.

Home Repair Scams

This covers a variety of scams that involves fraudsters either taking money upfront for work they’ll never complete or participating in unethical behavior that you’ll have the pay the price for later. Some examples of home repair scams, as listed by the FTC, include:

  • Home repair scams: Scammers often target the elderly, who often have physical limitations preventing them from doing essential home repairs or maintenance. If your property is in clear need of repairs or lawn care, they may offer to handle those issues for you for upfront payment. Instead of completing the work, they’ll leave after taking your money.
  • Utility cut-on scams: Those forced to live without utilities — particularly seniors living in areas that have recently been struck by natural disasters — are commonly targeted by this scam. A person will pose as an employee from your utility company and offer to reconnect services for a fee, only to disappear after receiving payment.
  • Cable reconnect scams: If, after going through your mail, scammers notice that your cable has been disconnected due to non-payment, they may offer to reconnect your cable for a surprisingly low fee. They may actually reconnect your cable — but doing so is illegal. You’ll be stuck with further fees and potential legal action against you if you accept this offer.
Homeowner/Reverse Mortgage Scams

Reverse mortgages, an option for people at least 62 years old, can help seniors (who are often on a fixed income) overcome financial hurdles. Unfortunately, predatory lending practices have led to many seniors being charged unreasonable interest rates. Such loans with predatory rates are often called reverse mortgage scams.

The FBI has given some advice for seniors to avoid these loans. This includes:

  • Not responding to unsolicited loan offers
  • Carefully analyzing loan offers that seem too good to be true
  • Not signing anything that you don’t understand
  • Seeking out a reverse mortgage counselor before accepting any offers
IRS/SSA Scams

Sometimes, scammers may target seniors by falsely posing as representatives from government organizations such as the IRS or SSA. They’ll demand payment for back taxes, for missing jury duty, or for some other false pretense and extort money under the threat of arrest, jail time, or deportation. Using phone number spoofing (as outlined above) and fake badge numbers, a call from such a scammer may even appear to be authentic.

Do not pay the imposter, and report any such attempts. Federal organizations such as the IRS don’t contact civilians in this manner to collect debts — they’ll typically make such requests through the mail.

Health Care/Health Insurance/Medicare Fraud

If someone claims that they are a representative from the government looking to help you continue your Medicare coverage, be wary: They may be simply looking to get your information in order to commit identity theft. This scam most often takes place during the Medicare “open enrollment” period and disproportionately targets seniors.

Only provide information after you’ve verified who you’re talking to. You can call 1-800-MEDICARE to check that you’re not speaking with an impostor.

Romance Scams

Another type of scam that can harm seniors is romance scams. Malicious users will often target widows or widowers on social media or dating sites, posing as a new potential romantic interest. After taking some time to build trust with the target, scammers will begin to request more information about them, perhaps even soliciting money via wire transfers. Blinded by love, these users will often lose hundreds, if not thousands of dollars in this long con.

This is a prevalent problem on dating sites. In fact, 12 percent of all dating site users are conned. In order to avoid becoming a part of this statistic, do not give information or money to anyone unless you’ve verified their identity. Thoroughly research people online, and keep an eye out for any inconsistencies in a person’s backstory; these might be the signs of a fake, malicious user.

Grandparent Scams

In a similar manner to romance scams, grandparent scams involve assuming a false persona in order to develop a relationship with a target under false pretenses. In this scam, fraudsters pretend to be the distant relative of the target (or a lawyer presenting the relative) in order to extort money from them for supposedly urgent reasons. This is particularly problematic when the person being targeted has memory-related issues stemming from conditions like Alzheimer’s or dementia.

Bogus Charities

An especially disheartening type of scam, charity frauds and donation scams are very common, particularly during the holiday season. People looking to turn the spirit of cheer and goodwill into personal gain may pose as a collector for a charitable (often non-existent) organization and solicit for donations.

Don’t donate before researching the veracity of this organization. If they have a good, reputable track record, you can feel confident that your donations will go toward the cause it is intended to. Furthermore, instead of giving money to a door-to-door collector, opt to donate directly to the organization when possible.

 

General Tips for Avoiding Scams

While some advice for common scams can be found in the previous section, there are some best practices that you must follow in order to protect both yourself and your family. Here are some of the most important general tips you should follow to avoid becoming the victim of a scam:

Do Not Share Personal Information
  • Your personal information can be used by fraudsters to impersonate you. Bank accounts, credit cards, loans, and more can be opened in your name, and resolving a case of identity theft can be an expensive and panic-inducing experience. PIN numbers, credit card numbers, your Social Security number, passwords, even email address or mail addresses should all be kept strictly confidential.
  • Legitimate companies will not ask for your PIN or password. You should treat any requests for your personal information with extreme suspicion.
Do Your Research
  • When speaking to someone representing themselves as an employee for a reputable organization, don’t take their word for it. Keep notes, always asking for full names, a reciprocal phone number, their manager’s/supervisor’s phone number, badge numbers, ID cards, and/or some form of identification that confirms they are who they say.
  • Do some research on the company before accepting an email or letter as authentic. Search the company or product name if they give you one along with words like “scam” or “complaint.” These results could reveal that they are part of an ongoing scam. You should also try searching with a phrase that describes the situation you think you might be experiencing, such as “IRS scam call.”
  • Research the company on the Better Business Bureau. The BBB will give you an idea of the company’s reputation and give you valuable information to conduct further research.
Be Wary of When and How You Pay
  • Do not pay upfront for promises. No reputable organization or service should charge you upfront for services regarding debt relief, credit and loan offers, mortgage assistance, or a job. These types of fees, as noted above, are extremely common in scams — and are a sure sign that you need to be cautious.
  • If you are interested in something, ask the representative to send you an offer in writing. This will help you do further research and, if necessary, serve as evidence when you report any potential scams.
  • There is a reason that scammers often accept wire transfers or reloadable money cards/gift cards; they aren’t easily traced. As such, using these methods is risky. Government offices and honest companies will not ask you to use these as a method of payment — they will send you a bill.
  • Read the fine print and be wary of “free” trials. Such “free trials” often aren’t free at all: They may lead to unexpected charges, commitments to months of a service you don’t want to use, or worse. Take a look at customer reviews and check out the business on the Better Business Bureau before accepting any such offers.

Red Flags for Caregivers and Loved Ones to Lookout for

If you have concerns that a friend, family member, or patient is being targeted or has been affected by a scam, there are signs to look out for. Unusual behavior in regards to finances or contact with strangers could indicate that you need to open a dialogue with the person in question.

Unusual and Sudden Changes Regarding Finances
  • Sudden financial problems: If a person has an uncharacteristic lack of money — or, worse, they are beginning to leave bills unpaid — there must be clear reason for this change. A financial scam could be to blame.
  • Uncharacteristically secretive about their spending: If communication with an individual hits a brick wall whenever the subject of their spending comes up, they may be trying to hide their spending. Whether they feel ashamed for being scammed or have been manipulated into believing that no one should know about it, secrecy could be another sign that they are being taken advantage of.
  • Excessive withdrawals or expenditures: If you have evidence that the person is withdrawing or spending an inordinate amount of money, and there is no clear reason why, you should be on the lookout for any other signs they are being scammed.
Abnormal Contact with Strangers
  • An unusual amount of contact with strangers: An excessive number of phone calls, emails, paper mail, or house visits from unknown individuals or companies should put you on the lookout. Scammers often build a sense of urgency through multiple messages to extort money.
  • A sudden fixation with someone new: Long cons often require that fraudsters build a sense of trust with their target, as is often the case in romance scams. Fraudsters groom their targets by building trust, pretending to befriend them, or show romantic interest and try to isolate them from their families.

What to Do if You or a Loved One Is the Victim of a Scam

Do any of the scam methods above sound like something you or a loved one has been through? Do you feel like you or they may be the victim of another type of scam? The following advice will help victims protect themselves and minimize the damage the scam can do to them.

Stop All Contact Immediately
  • If you are still in contact with the person you suspect has scammed you, stop the conversation immediately. Don’t answer phone calls from the suspected scammer and don’t reply to emails or messages. Their efforts will be dedicated to extorting more money from you and manipulating you as much as possible, and confronting them will not resolve the situation.
  • Do not make any more payments to the scammer. No amount of money will deter a fraudster or make them go away; if they suspect they can continue to exploit you, they will continue to do so. These are called follow-up scams, and they can cause serious, recurring financial harm to those affected.
Call Your Financial Institution
  • If you have sent money to a scammer or given them any personal information that could be used against you, call your bank or credit union and explain to them that you believe you are a victim of a fraud. They will freeze any relevant accounts and give you further instructions to protect your identity.
  • Most institutions will have procedures in place to deal with fraud. Check your bank’s website for advice regarding fraud and closely follow any advice they offer.
Assess Online Security
  • Change passwords for all online accounts. Be sure that your passwords are strong by creating a complex one consisting of letters, symbols, and numbers. Do not share passwords across different sites or platforms; if one suffers a data breach, you can bet that cyber criminals will access each of your accounts using that password.
  • Update PIN numbers. Just as with your passwords, if your PIN numbers are compromised, you’ll need to have them changed as soon as possible to prevent credit card fraud. You’ll may also need to open new banking accounts and be issued new credit cards, depending on the nature of the scam you were subjected to.
  • Change your phone number. Once you’ve been a victim of identity theft, you’ll want to get a new phone number in order to avoid any other attempts at fraud or follow-up scams. Furthermore, since your phone number is needed for two-factor authentication for many applications/platforms, be sure to have your number updated in those places to maintain access to those services.
  • Block the scammer through whichever avenue they contacted you through — such as your phone number, email, or social media profile. This is also necessary in order to avoid future attempts at scams. The malicious user may attempt to create new accounts or spoof a new phone number in order to bypass these measures, so be wary of opening emails, accepting friend requests, or answering calls from unfamiliar sources.
Report the Scam

Above all, in order to keep others safe from the scam that affected you, be sure to report the crime with the appropriate organization:

  • The Federal Trade Commission is the ideal place to start when looking to report an act of fraud. You can file a complaint online or at 1-877-FTC-HELP. The FTC Complaint Assistant can give you more information on who to contact depending on the nature of your specific complaint.
  • You’ll also want to file your complaint with the Internet Crime Complaint Center if the crime in question took place online. Complaints to this organization are used to inform cybersecurity efforts from the FBI and other organizations.
  • Contact your local Adult Protection Services. These organizations are dedicated to protecting the vulnerable in the aging community.