Illicit actors are increasingly zeroing in on senior citizens to victimize them in a wide variety of tailor-made scams and fraudulent activities
Senior citizens — any individual 60 years old or older — are increasingly targeted because scammers perceive them to be less tech-savvy and more financially stable. It’s important to understand the nature of these financial schemes in order to minimize the risks of fraud.
Different types of scams
Government imposter scams
Government imposter scams cost seniors about $122 million in 2021. In these schemes, criminals contact seniors by phone, email, or text pretending to be from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), Social Security Administration (SSA), or Medicare.
These scammers may tell seniors that they owe a debt that must be paid immediately or face arrest, asset seizure, or termination of benefits. They also create a false sense of urgency in order to get their victims to act immediately and avoid talking with anyone who might detect the scam.
Seniors can avoid these schemes by following these guidelines from the FTC:
- Don’t send cash, gift cards, or cryptocurrency to pay someone who claims they are with the government
- Don’t give financial or other personal information to someone who calls, text messages, or emails claiming to be from the government
- Don’t trust your caller ID
- Don’t click on links in unexpected emails or text messages
Be aware that no government agency will contact a senior citizen or anyone else by phone, email, or text message to demand payments or personal information. This alone is an important safeguard to avoid becoming the victim of a government impersonator scam.
Sweepstakes or lottery scammers contact seniors by phone or mail to say that the senior has won the sweepstakes or lottery. Sometimes the prize is cash and sometimes it is something else of value such as a new car.
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The scammer will tell the senior that in order to claim the prize, the senior has to for example, wire a few hundred to a few thousand dollars to cover processing fees and taxes by gift cards, electronic wire transfers, money orders, or cash. Using these payment methods makes the transactions nearly untraceable.
Often the scammer may also suggest that the senior keep the prize a secret from their family so that it can be a surprise. This keeps the senior from discussing the scheme with others who might intervene to prevent the scam.
Illegal robocalls & phone scams
Many schemes rely on high-volume illegal robocalls that often originate overseas but spoof phone numbers with local area codes. These robocalls are a low-cost way for scammers to identify potential victims for other schemes, and people who were scammed through spam calls lost an average of $431 in 2022.
Robocall scams may do nothing more than target seniors to social engineer them into answering “Yes” to a simple question such as, “Can you hear me?” When the senior answers, their response is recorded, and that “Yes” answer can be edited to sound as if the senior approved a major purchase. In fact, scams relying on phone calls resulted in $280 million in losses to people 60 and older in 2021, according to the FTC.
Computer tech support scams
Tech support scams can take different forms. In any case, the tech support person may claim to be from a well-known company such as Microsoft or Apple and request “remote access” to the senior’s computer to fix the issue.
Once the scammers have access, the senior may be locked out of their computer until they pay a fee to the scammer. Alternatively, the scammer may use that computer access to steal financial account information, including passwords, that are stored on the computer. These tech support scams resulted in $73 million in losses to seniors in 2021.
Seniors should hang up on any unsolicited call that claims there is a problem with their computer. If there is an issue with a computer, seniors should get help only from a trusted source.
Grandparent scams occur when someone calls a senior claiming to be the senior’s grandchild or a law enforcement officer who has detained the senior’s grandchild. The scammer tells the senior that the grandchild is in trouble and needs money to help with an emergency, such as getting out of jail, paying a hospital bill, or leaving a foreign country.
The scammer will play on the senior’s emotions in an attempt to get the senior to wire money to the caller. The fraudster will create a sense of urgency and will pressure the senior to send money in the fastest way possible. If the senior does send money, the scammer will call back to ask for additional money for fees.
To reduce the risk of falling for this scheme, the Senate Special Committee on Aging recommends that seniors:
- resist the urge to act immediately;
- ask the person questions only the relative would know to verify their identity;
- call a phone number that the senior knows belongs to their family member; and
- check out the story with other members of the family even if asked to keep it a secret.
Romance scams that target seniors are increasing, resulting in significant financial losses
Romance scams happen when a senior meets someone online who lavishes them with attention and then asks for money. Romance scammers often use dating apps or social media to identify their victims. Some romance scammers target victims in order to use them as money mules. The scammers convince victims to receive the illegal proceeds of crime and then forward that money to the fraudsters, which could result in criminal charges against the unwitting victims of these schemes.
To avoid becoming the victim of a romance scam, seniors should:
- never send money or gifts to someone they haven’t met in person;
- take it slowly and take steps to verify the identity of the person;
- talk to someone they trust about their new love interest; and
- cut off contact right away if they suspect a romance scam.
The costs of fraud against seniors have significantly increased across all of the top forms of fraud. Awareness of the schemes that scammers use to target older individuals can help reduce the risk that senior citizens will become a victim of these crimes in the future.