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 and 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 use the internet regularly. Unfortunately, this increased use of technology brings a heightened risk of fraud for all Americans. In this article, we will address the most prevalent scams targeting our senior citizens and provide simple advice on protecting yourself and your elderly loved ones.
Why do Scammers target Older Americans?
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 aged 55 and up controlled 67.7% of all the wealth in the U.S. while representing only 21% of the population. Scammers take advantage of seniors’ lack of experience and knowledge about computers and cybersecurity.
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 and economic and educational backgrounds. These professional criminals know what to say and how 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, the elderly population falling victim to a scam is more likely to go unreported out of embarrassment, shame, 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 out of shame or lack of awareness that a crime has occurred. Unfortunately, the average amount people lose in a single scam increases with age but ranges from $600 to $1,600. This is only an average. Many higher-value scams have also been reported, upwards of hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Most Common Scams Targeting Seniors
According to a recent National Council on Aging (NCOA) report, scams targeting older adults are rising. 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 the seniors in your life.
- 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 receive 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 use intimidation tactics to scare you, such as saying that you owe taxes, threatening to seize your assets, or sending 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 at the moment. A legitimate agency will never use these tactics. Remember, when in doubt… CHECK IT OUT. A legitimate government agency representative will understand if you state that you will call back to verify that this information is correct and not a fraud.
- 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 invoke the name of well-known prize organizations, like Publishers Clearing House, to instill trust, then ask for a credit card number or personal information, all intending 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 victims fall prey to the scam, they may receive multiple requests for information or money from the fraudsters over months or even years.
- Robo Call Scams
Robocalls take advantage of phone technology to simultaneously call thousands of phone numbers, hoping to find that one caller that will hold on the line long enough for a scammer to 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 number of calls made across the country. If a person, in particular, an elder American, actually takes this call, they may purchase unwanted and unneeded items or worse. Criminals also use these robocalls 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.” The scammer convinces the elderly person to provide a credit card number, whether it’s a phony product or an intimidation scheme, claiming an “impending lawsuit” or fines from a government agency or police. If the senior objects to the charges, the scammer can use the recorded “yes” to state that the elder “consented” to the charges.
- Computer Tech Support Scams
Whether a website pop-up, an email, or a phone call, Tech Support scams are 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 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 cybercriminal may also request remote access to the older person’s computer, allowing access to credit card and bank account information. The fraudster may claim 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.
- 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, implying 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 ask for money for urgent financial needs like a disabled vehicle, school loans, or jail bond. The criminal will ask that the grandparent pays 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 are the most prevalent, they are not 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 ineffective treatments, which is not only a financial risk but also a health risk.
- 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 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 70+ years of age experience the highest incidence, with an 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 proposed offer’s contact information (name, email, phone number, addresses). Other people have likely posted information about individuals and businesses trying to run scams online.
- 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 yourself or a loved one is in danger.
- Be cautious of unsolicited phone calls, mailings, and door-to-door service offers.
- Never give or send any personally identifiable information, money, jewelry, gift cards, checks, or wire information to unverified people or businesses.
- Ensure all computer anti-virus, 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. Perpetrators regularly use pop-ups to spread malicious software. Enable pop-up blockers to avoid accidentally clicking on one.
- Be careful what you download. For example, never open an email attachment from someone you don’t know, and be wary of email attachments forwarded to you.
- 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 circulating online.
- Ensure that a trusted family member or financial advisor monitors 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 sweepstakes they have entered – all of these are red flags.
- Share articles like this with them and 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 identity. In addition, Premier Checking Account holders 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.