July 29, 2021
A 90-year-old Army veteran sat in shock, tears running down his face, hands shaking uncontrollably. He’d just gotten a phone call about a “medical emergency” involving his adult son; he was told he was in a horrible car accident, and money to save him was needed right away.
The man called his daughter, who, after quite some time, was able to convince her father that this was a scam. He believed her only when she called his son, her brother, who was just fine at work.
As cruel and emotionally damaging as this call was, the man was lucky not to have been robbed. Over $40 billion dollars is stolen from senior citizens every year by scammers who target them specifically.
How can you help yourself or a loved one recognize and avoid a scam, and if you/they have been the victim of a scam, what should you do?
First, let’s examine why scammers prey on the elderly in the first place.
Scammers target older people for a variety of reasons. Seniors can be lonely and more willing to communicate with scammers; they are generally less technically savvy and more vulnerable to web- or email-based scams; their judgment can be impaired by memory loss, dementia or other age-related issues; they have amassed some wealth over the years; they can be naïve about the myriad ways in which fraud is committed in modern times.
With the COVID pandemic, fraudulent activity aimed at seniors is even more rampant. Being aware of the prevalence and various types of scams goes a long way toward preventing you or a loved one from becoming the victim of elder fraud.
What Are the Most Common Elder Scams?
According to the National Council on Aging, the top ten financial scams aimed at seniors are:
- Medicare – Scammers pose as Medicare representatives, asking for seniors’ Medicare ID number and other personal information. Armed with this information, the fraudsters then bill Medicare for phony services and keep the money for themselves.
- The Grandparent Scam – Like the aforementioned scam playing on a father’s worst fear, the grandparent scam also exploits human emotions. In this ploy, the scammer pretends to be a distressed grandchild or relative in need of money to get out of some dire situation. Often, the caller will open with “Do you know who this is?”, to which the senior will respond with the guessed name of a relative, making it even easier for the scammer to rope them in.
- Sweepstakes/Lotteries – This one delivers the “exciting” news that the senior has won a big prize of some kind. However, in order for them to claim the prize, they have to pay a fee, usually via wire transfer. Aware that it will take time for the bank to reject it, the scammer sends a fake check to the victim, who is none the wiser until the check doesn’t clear.
- Funerals – Scammers comb obituaries to procure information about a deceased person with the intention of extorting money from grieving spouses or family members. They claim that the deceased has an outstanding debt that must be paid immediately. Some unethical funeral directors also engage in fraudulent activities, such as selling vulnerable family members a casket when their loved one has been cremated.
- Counterfeit prescription drugs – Drug prices are increasing all the time, causing older adults to look to the Internet for more affordable medications. Knowing this, scammers set up web sites that promise cheap drugs, which are often counterfeit. Not surprisingly, the bogus drugs do not improve buyers’ health conditions; they can often make them worse.
- Phone scams – The most common form of elder fraud (seniors are twice as likely to fall for phone scams than younger people), telephone scams solicit money for multiple illegitimate reasons. They include friends or family members in need of help (like the grandparent scam), fake charities, especially after a natural disaster, support for phony local police or fire departments, and the list goes on.
- Anti-aging products – What older person doesn’t want to look younger? Seniors are easy targets for scammers who promise them younger, more youthful skin and greater vitality. Not only are these products worthless, they can also contain harmful materials.
- Internet scams – For many seniors, the Internet is still new territory. As such, they are particularly susceptible to website or email scams. Personal information is easily gained by unscrupulous sorts who lure seniors into downloading phony anti-virus software or send them phishing emails that ask them to update their bank or credit card information on a bogus website.
- Mortgages – Tom Selleck may be a credible, familiar spokesperson in those T.V. ads for reverse mortgages. However, elderly homeowners need to be wary of fraudsters who would trick them into believing their home equity is tax-free cash or that, for a fee, the value of their home can be reassessed. Other home-related scams pressure seniors into taking out equity to use as payment for repairs that are not necessary.
- Investments – Many seniors have considerable assets after a lifetime of working. Scammers posing as financial advisors seek access to their retirement funds and can wipe them out of their life savings.
Other common elder scams include
- Sweetheart scams prey on lonely seniors looking for love or companionship. What seniors get instead is a fraudster – often armed with a stolen photo of an attractive person – that can wipe them out of everything. One woman discovered that her 79-year-old father had sent $700,000 to a “woman” he’d never met.
- IRS scams whereby phony agents inform seniors that they owe years of back taxes and penalties were the top complaint reported to the Senate Aging Committee’s Fraud Hotline in 2018.
- Life insurance scammers are fake or sometimes real, albeit unscrupulous, financial agents who sell policies that they surreptitiously switch from term to whole life insurance or whose premiums increase without the senior’s knowledge.
- Do Not Call scams are relatively new. Ironically, the service intended to protect people from scam calls is impersonated by scammers to tell people their Do Not Call registration has expired. They then solicit personal information to “reinstate” it. The real Do Not Call service does not call to update registration.
In addition: Federal agencies NEVER call or email individuals demanding money or threatening legal action!
How Can You Avoid Being Scammed?
- Be aware. Awareness that the above and more scams exist is more than half the battle against elder fraud. Two helpful resources that offer up-to-date fraud protection tips and information are Fraud.org and the fraud section on Snopes.com.
- Never give out personal information – EVER! Keeping in mind that no legitimate agency or organization will ever contact you personally via phone or email…or demand money…or make threats, you can be confident that you are never required to give out personal/financial information of any kind that is solicited over the phone, via email, or other channels that are not 100% familiar to you (such as your real doctor’s office, your real insurance provider, etc.)
- Beware of dead air, unknown senders, emails links and attachments. Many scams can be nipped in the bud right from the start. A telltale sign of a phone scam are those few moments of silence on the other end when you answer. That means that a computer center somewhere – possibly on the other side of the world – is trying to connect you to a real person. Hang up before they have the chance. Do not open emails from senders whose names you don’t recognize (delete or block them), and never click on a link or open an email attachment you don’t recognize. Links and attachments spread viruses and also pave the way for phishers to access your personal information.
- Consult with trusted family. A trusted adult child, relative or friend can be your best ally in avoiding elder scams. Seniors, consult with someone you trust about any phone call, email or website whose legitimacy you can’t verify. Adult children, regularly ask your parent about any unfamiliar calls or emails they’ve received. Also, assure them that you’re not trying to meddle in their affairs or control their actions; you are trying to help them avoid elder fraud.
- Become a skeptic. The world is changing daily at break-neck speed. Seniors have lived many years and have gathered great wisdom, but modern technology has enabled people with ill intentions to commit fraud in ways many older people cannot even conceive. Being skeptical of everything you don’t know “like the back of your hand” is a good rule of thumb – especially things that employ scare tactics or seem too good to be true.
What Should You Do If You or a Loved One Has Been Scammed?
Don’t be ashamed of yourself or angry with a victim
Whether you are the victim of elder fraud or close to someone who is, it’s important not to feel shame in yourself or anger with the victim. Many seniors feel embarrassed that they were duped and keep it from everyone, including authorities. There is no fault in being taken in by skillful scammers, nor is there any reason to be mad at someone who was scammed. Grace on both sides is key to moving forward and taking action.
Report it to the FBI
Contact your local FBI field office or submit a tip online. The FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center will want as many of these details as the victim can provide:
- Name(s) of scammers and/or organization
- Date(s) of contact
- Method(s) of communication
- Perpetrators’ phone numbers, emails, websites, etc.
- Victim’s method of payment
- Where and how funds were sent
- Instructions victim was given, as well as descriptions of interactions with scammers
- Discontinue all contact with anyone you believe to be a scammer.
- Place a fraud alert with your credit agencies and close all bank and credit card accounts opened during the scam period.
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