Each year, millions of elderly people around the world fall victim to some type of financial fraud or confidence scheme. Throughout the scam, fraudsters will often build trust with their targets via computer, phone, and the mail. Once successful, scammers are likely to keep a scheme going because of the prospect of significant financial gain. According to the FBI, seniors are often targeted because they tend to be trusting and polite. They also usually have financial savings, own a home, and have good credit—all of which make them attractive to scammers. Indeed, protecting our elderly from scammers is more important than ever before.

The Cost of Fraud

Financial exploitation of older Americans is on the rise. For example, estimates of fraud-related losses and costs range from $2.9 billion a year to as high as $35 billion a year. However, it is hard to gauge how close these numbers are to the actual figure. Sadly, not everyone goes to the police.

Not The Oldest Tricks in the Book

According to NOCA (National Council on Aging) these are the top ten financial scams targeting the elderly as of February 2021.

1. Government Imposter Scams

Government impostors call unsuspecting victims and pretend to be from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), Social Security Administration, or Medicare. They may say your Social Security or Medicare benefits are in danger of being cut off. To prevent that you’re told to provide personal identifying information (that can then be used to commit fraud). Government impersonators often “spoof” the IRS phone number. In other words, they make it appear that they’re calling from actual phone numbers of the government agency. They may also call from the same area code (202 for Washington, DC).

2. The grandparent scam

The grandparent scam is so simple and devious because it uses seniors’ most reliable assets, their hearts. Scammers place a call to an older person and usually say something like: “Hi Grandma, do you know who this is?” The unsuspecting grandparent guesses the name of the grandchild the scammer most sounds like. As a result, the scammer has now established a fake identity without having done any background research. Once “in,” the fake grandchild will ask for money to solve some unexpected financial problem (overdue rent, car repairs, jail bond) and will beg the grandparent not to tell anyone. Because scammers ask to be paid via gift cards or money transfer, which don’t always require identification to collect, the senior may have no way of seeing that money ever again.

3. Medicare/health insurance scams

Every U.S. citizen or permanent resident over age 65 qualifies for Medicare, so there is rarely any need for a scam artist to research what private health insurance company older people have in order to scam them out of some money. In these types of scams, perpetrators may pose as a Medicare representative to get older people to give them their personal information, or they will provide bogus services for elderly people at makeshift mobile clinics, then bill Medicare and pocket the money. Medicare scams often follow the latest trends in medical research, such as genetic testing fraud and COVID-19 vaccines.

4. Computer tech support scams

Computer technical support scams prey on people’s lack of knowledge about computers and cybersecurity. A pop-up message or blank screen usually appears on a computer or phone, telling you that your device is compromised and needs fixing. When you call the support number for help, the scammer may either request remote access to your computer and/or that you pay a fee to have it repaired. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) found that seniors who fell for this scam lost an average of $500 each to computer tech support scams in 2018.

5. Sweepstakes & lottery scams

This simple scam is one that many are familiar with, and it capitalizes on the notion that “there’s no such thing as a free lunch.” Here, scammers inform their mark that they have won a lottery or sweepstakes of some kind and need to make some sort of payment to unlock the supposed prize.

Often, seniors will be sent a check that they can deposit in their bank account, knowing that while it shows up in their account immediately, it will take a few days before the (fake) check is rejected. During that time, the criminals will quickly collect money for supposed fees or taxes on the prize, which they pocket while the victim has the “prize money” removed from his or her account as soon as the check bounces. Unlike some of the other scams noted here, lottery and sweepstakes scammers can sometimes collect thousands of dollars from their unsuspecting victims.

6. Robocalls/phone scams

Robocalls take advantage of sophisticated phone technology to dial large numbers of households from anywhere in the world. Robocallers use a variety of tactics to cheat their victims. Some may claim that a warranty is expiring on their car/electronic product and payment is needed to renew it. One popular robocall is the “Can you hear me?” call, where when the senior says yes, the scammer hangs up after recording their voice, thus obtaining a voice signature to authorize unwanted charges on items like stolen credit cards.

7. Romance Scams

As more people use the Internet for dating, con artists see an opportunity to find their next victim. Romance scammers create elaborate fake profiles, often on social media, and exploit seniors’ loneliness for money. In some cases, romance scammers may (or pretend to) be overseas, and request money to pay for visas, medical emergencies, and travel expenses to come visit the U.S. Because they drag on for a long time, romance scammers can get a lot of money from a senior—the FTC found that in 2019 alone, seniors lost nearly $84 million to romance scams.

8. Internet and email fraud

While using the Internet is a great skill at any age, the slower speed of adoption among some older people makes them easier targets for automated Internet scams that are ubiquitous on the web and email programs. Pop-up browser windows simulating virus-scanning software will fool victims into either downloading a fake anti-virus program (at a substantial cost) or an actual virus that will open up whatever information is on the user’s computer to scammers. Their unfamiliarity with the less visible aspects of browsing the web (firewalls and built-in virus protection, for example) make seniors especially susceptible to such traps.

Phishing emails and text messages may look like they’re from a company you know or trust. They may look like they’re from a bank, a credit card company, or an online store. Phishing emails request your personal information, such as a log-in or Social Security number to verify your account, or ask that you update your credit card payment. Then they use that information to steal your personal and financial information.

9. Elder financial abuse

Unlike many of the other scams, elder financial abuse is carried out by someone a senior knows. This can be a family member, friend, power of attorney, or caregiver. These trusted individuals try and gain control of a senior’s money, assets, and credit. They also may withhold needed care in order to retain control over the person and their assets. Seniors who have a disability or cognitive impairment (such as dementia) may be at particular risk.

10. Charity scams

Charity scams rely on seniors’ goodwill to pocket money they claim they’re raising for a good cause. Some scammers may use a name similar to a legitimate charity. They often capitalize on current events, such as natural disasters, and may set up a fundraising page on a crowdsourcing site, which don’t always have to means to investigate fraud. Charity scammers may insist you donate immediately, sometimes with a payment method that should be a red flag—e.g., gift cards or money transfer.

Take Steps to Protect Yourself and Your Family

All of this is often frightening and sad. However, there are steps you can take to protect yourself and your family.

    • Realize that your loved one is a potential target.
    • Remember there is fear and shame when scammed, so be empathetic.
    • Involve trusted family members in money management jobs.
    • Engage multiple family members, to reduce the potential for a single point of failure.
    • Keep up to date on local scams.
    • Keep your loved one feeling empowered.
    • Eliminate as many calls and as much junk mail as possible. Consider signing your loved ones up for the National Do Not Call Registry.