Have you or a loved one been a victim of identity theft or scam? With advancing technology, scams against the elderly population are more common than ever. Scams are the crime of the 21st century. With criminals employing new technology and creative ploys to ensnare their victims, vulnerable people are helplessly caught in their trap.
Seniors stand out as the most targeted group and are easy pickings for criminals. Scammers are now using sophisticated deception, convincing victims they are persons of authority and robbing them of their life savings.
Senior Survey Findings
An overwhelming number of people are victimized by scammers and thieves. In an effort to get a clearer picture, the Senior Care Center surveyed 147 seniors over age 50 and asked about their experience as a victim of a scam or identity theft.
The results showed 71% of these seniors were victims of several different scams or identity theft crimes.
How Scammers Reached Their Victims
According to the survey, scammers approached the victim in a number of ways. Phone calls (61%) and emails (12%) were dominant means of communication. Others were scammed in-person, through text, mail, advertisements on social media platforms, pop-up windows, and even through dating apps.
How Scammers Gained Their Victim’s Trust
Senior Care Center’s survey revealed that scammers would present themselves in a variety of ways to gain the trust of a senior. The top two ways scammers would gain their victim's trust was by presenting themselves as an agent from the government office such as the IRS, the Social Security Administration (SSA), or the FBI (23%). The second way was to present themselves as a computer technician offering support (22%).
Scammers would also pretend to be a friend or family member in need (9%), pretend to provide a domestic service (9%), claim that the victim had won a large prize such as a lottery (9%), or pretend to be romantically interested in the victim (4%).
When victims described what happened during the scam, a few common themes emerged. The perpetrator always asked for personal information and money. The scammer would also claim that an awful, disappointing, or exciting circumstance required immediate and urgent action from the victim.
In a computer technical support scenario, scammers will claim there is something that needs to be downloaded or fixed on the victim’s computer. In other situations, scammers had personal information about the victim (i.e. grandson’s name, criminal record, life history) and used it as a way to gain the victim’s trust as a person of authority and scare the victim into action.
An Alarming Crisis
The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine published a study titled Elder Mistreatment: Abuse, Neglect, and Exploitation in Aging America which reports that nearly 1 to 2 million seniors are victims of elder mistreatment each year. Mistreatment comes in various forms, but one particular subcategory is elder mistreatment through technology scams and identity theft.
Other reports such as the Office of Children and Family Service’s 2016 Cost of Financial Exploitation report, estimates that seniors lose anywhere from $2.9 billion to $36 billion a year from financial exploitation. In addition, not all cases are reported so it is likely that numbers are even higher.
Sadly, The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau believes this is a booming issue that is unlikely to go away. In the last few years, reports of elder financial exploitation have grown exponentially and experts predict the number of cases will continue to climb as scammers change their strategies.
Why Do Scammers Target Seniors?
The elderly are targeted for financial exploitation and identity theft for a variety of reasons. Scammers take advantage of this population because they tend to be more trusting, isolated, and have less knowledge concerning current technology, which makes it easy for criminals to obtain a senior’s personal information through those means.
In addition, seniors with conditions such as dementia or Alzheimer’s disease are more susceptible to fraud. According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, there are additional reasons why seniors are a targeted population.
Greater Financial Resources
Seniors are more likely to have savings, own a home, and have excellent credit, which all makes them susceptible to identity theft and fraud.
Susceptible to Miracle Products and Claims
Elderly seniors are more likely to buy products promising increased cognitive functions, health claims, and other exaggerated or false claims.
Raised In Different Eras
Older Americans who were raised in earlier eras are more likely to be polite and obedient to a person in authority, qualities which scam artists look for in their victims.
Less Likely To Report
Seniors are also less likely to report crimes when victimized. The FBI claims this is due to a number of reasons such as not knowing where to report the crime, feeling too ashamed for being manipulated, not knowing they have been a victim of a crime, and fears that family members will remove their power to run their financial affairs.
Aging can diminish a person’s mental and physical capacities and scammers exploit this vulnerability in seniors. The FBI also notes that the seniors who do report crimes sometimes struggle with memory and details over long time frames, which can make it difficult to build a case against a scammer.
Have you ever received an email or call from a person introducing themselves as a “Nigerian prince?” This is one of the most common scams many people are already familiar with. A person posing as a Nigerian prince will approach the victim, offering a large sum of money, but the victim must transfer money to him first.
Although this is one of the most well-known scams in the last decade, there are still many victims falling for this ploy. As soon as authorities have been informed, scammers are likely to change their strategy in approaching their victims. With the constant change in technology, scammers are using sophisticated tactics to trick their victims.
Many of these plots can be tricky to detect. For example, scammers can manipulate their caller ID number to look the same as the government agencies they are pretending to represent. Be on the lookout for these common scams:
Social Security Scam
According to the United States Senate Special Committee on Aging, social security scams are the #1 scam in the country. Americans have lost over $38 million to Social Security scams in the last year.
The Social Security Administration has received over 115,000 complaints in less than three months. In this scenario, the scammer will call and pretend to be from the Social Security Administration. They will tell the victim that their Social Security number has been suspended and that there is a warrant for their arrest. The scammer will then tell the victim that they need additional personal information until they can confirm their social security number. The victim will then proceed to share their social security number and the scammer will exploit their information for financial gain.
Some variations tell of scammers employing intense fear tactics. For example, one woman reports that her scammer posed as an agent from the Social Security Administration and told her that a vehicle registered under her name was found at a crime scene. The false agent told her that her Social Security number had been used to set up bank accounts connected to a drug cartel.
The scammer then introduced the victim to a fake DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration) agent who claimed that the woman had to wire all her assets (more than $150,000) to an offshore bank account for protection while action was taken against the drug cartel. If she didn’t follow through with the instructions, she would be arrested for conspiring with the cartel. The scammers even produced official-looking documents to manipulate the woman. In this particular case, the victim lost $150,000 to scammers.
In a similar scheme, scammers will trick a victim into believing that they are from the Internal Revenue Service. The scammer poses as an IRS agent and insists that the person owes money to the IRS. The agent will then ask the person for their personal and financial information and for the person to send money to settle their case with the IRS.
Internet/Technical Support Scam
Scams involving the internet are popular and vary in form. Some of these scams appear as pop-up window insisting that the user’s computer has been compromised with a virus and will need to download a fake anti-virus program which allows the scammers to hack the computer and steal the victim’s information. Other scammers will call a victim and pose as an employee from a large tech company.
These scams primarily target the elderly population since this group is slower to embrace new technology and may not be as familiar with it. Scammers will tell the victim that their computer has a problem and will need to be fixed. They will then take the victim through a series of instructions which end in the victim transferring money to the scammer, or stealing the victim’s personal and financial information.
In a grandparent scam, the caller will pretend to be a family member in trouble. The scammer will say that some sort of trouble has happened and the senior will need to send a large amount of money to them to get them out of trouble.
For example, in one scenario, the scammer pretended to be a family member who ended up in jail by accident and needed bail money to get out. These schemes are very tricky because scammers can fool the elderly by imitating a loved one in high distress and seniors who do not recognize the voice on phone may have a harder time understanding that it is a scam.
Utility Company Scam
Thousands have been fooled by a scam involving a utility company employee. In this scenario, someone poses as a representative from a utility company and insists your utility bill is unpaid and threatens to cut off service. Scam artists especially utilize this scenario during extreme weather seasons such as hot summers or cold winters. This is to pressure the victim to act in fear and urgency.
In another scenario, the scammer will insist that you have overpaid for utilities and will get a refund. Utility scammers will then ask for personal information such as credit card or bank account number. Unsuspecting victims will then hand over their financial information and lose money to the scammer.
This scam is especially effective because most victims would not suspect their utility company to be untrustworthy, and scammers take advantage of this and steal tens of thousands of dollars each year from unsuspecting homeowners.
Seniors over the age of 65 qualify for Medicare and for this reason, Medicare scams are popular. Scammers will call the victim and pretend to be a Medicare representative in order to get the senior’s personal and financial information. The fake Medicare agent will ask if the victim has received their Medicare card yet and informs the victim that they will need to send in their old card. Others will claim that the victim’s medical coverage will be canceled unless they confirm their information with the scammer.
Medicare scammers will also use the victim’s personal information to file false claims to get money, set up fake Medicare booths to target seniors, send a fake Medicare agent door-to-door to sell medical equipment or plans, mail fake Medicare sales material, offer fake genetic testing, and most recently, offer testing kits for COVID-19.
Telemarketing scams will involve the sales of products with fraudulent claims. These telemarketers will call offering products with special properties such as vitamins, health care products, skincare, or other items. Telemarketing scams will also offer vacations, free cruises, giveaways, free prizes, and more.
Another way telemarketers run this scam is by contacting someone and telling them they have won a special prize such as a free vacation or a free product. However, the recipient will have to pay for postage and handling or some other charge. When the person makes a purchase with the telemarketer, the scammer will take their information and steal money. The FBI warns that these scams commonly target senior women over 60 who live alone. Read more about this scam on the FBI’s Telemarketing Fraud page.
Romantic scams are also popular. Many seniors are vulnerable to this scam because they tend to struggle with loneliness and are not aware of catfishing schemes, which is when a person creates a fake identity to lure their victims.
Romance scams involve a scammer attempting to quickly build a romantic relationship with their victim and eventually fabricating false scenarios where they ask their victim to send money for help. Scammers may even propose marriage or make plans to meet or build a future together, but these are tactics to distract the victim from the reality of the situation.
How Are Authorities Dealing With Scams?
Government authorities and organizations have ramped up their effort to prevent these crimes. Designated help centers, councils, coalitions, and task forces, such as the Elder Fraud Strike Force, are working together to protect the elderly from being targeted by scammers and con artists. One of the main ways authorities are addressing these scams is by educating the public about scams, fraud, and identity theft, and how to detect these crimes.
For example, the U.S. Department of Justice regularly produce press releases which outline the latest scams targeting the American public. The FBI also has a designated section on their site covering public safety and scams so the public can stay informed on how to protect themselves from these crimes.
Even the American Bar Association is getting involved. The ABA created a free webinar for recognizing and preventing scams. In the webinar, several acclaimed speakers give their best advice on how to combat this crime and share other helpful resources. Utility companies are also partnering up through Utilities United Against Scams, which provides the public with resources against utility company scams.
Knowledge is power and the more information people have about these scams, the easier it will be to stop these scams in their tracks. Authorities are asking victims of fraud, identity theft, and scams to report the crime. The more information authorities have about these crimes, the more evidence they will have to work with in order to end these crimes.
Although the number of cases seems overwhelming and almost impossible to take to court, sometimes online scammers, or cybercriminals are caught and arrested. In an article published by Forbes, twenty-one scammers who posed as IRS agents over the phone were arrested and tried in Houston. The scammers had ties to a large call center in Ahmedabad, India and stole over hundreds of millions of dollars from over thousands of victims.
However, the process of catching these criminals remains complex. Until recently, cybercriminals worked alone. With scams becoming a popular crime, cybergangs and criminal networks are popping up more and more. Law enforcement in India have raided large call centers that are solely dedicated to scamming Americans.
Many of these crimes are committed over international borders and law enforcement will have to work with both domestic and international government agencies, large corporations, and other groups in order to catch these criminals. It’s a time-consuming process involving digital forensics, location tracking, decrypting encrypted files, and specialized task forces.
When convicted, cybercriminals and scammers could face anywhere from 5 to 20 years in prison. Depending on the severity of the crime, they could also face fines upwards of $11,000.
How to Warn Your Loved One Against Scams
The best way family members can protect their loved ones is through continued checkups and educating their loved ones with knowledge. Here are a few steps family members can take:
Check-in With Your Loved Ones Regularly
Connection is the best protection a senior can have. Family members can call and check-in with their loved ones to see how their day was and if they’ve had any calls from other people or have been contacted by strangers recently.
It’s important to regularly warn your loved ones against calls demanding their personal or financial information and to avoid answering phone calls coming from phone numbers they do not recognize.
Inform Your Loved Ones
If your elderly loved one lives on their own and receives regular phone calls, educate them on spam, robocalls, telemarketing fraud, and the dangers of scammers. Show your loved one how to block callers to avoid spam messages and add your loved one’s phone number to the Do Not Call registry.
Discuss with your loved one why government agencies including the IRS, SSA, and other groups will not contact them by phone or approach them in-person. Explain why buying products or accepting a prize over the phone can be risky and dangerous. Help them stay informed of different scam scenarios and the new scams that are being reported.
Develop a Protocol
With the rising number of scam, robocalls, and fraud, it is likely your loved one will come into contact with a scammer at some point. Therefore, it is important for family members to develop a protocol with their loved one. You can develop a plan where your loved one is adamant about only taking phone calls from phone numbers they recognize and to never give out personal or financial information (even if the other line claims they are government officials).
Let your loved one know that when they come into contact with a stranger who is soliciting through phone, mail, or in-person, it is important to remain cautious and politely end the conversation as soon as possible.
If your loved one is in doubt and feels ready to take an opportunity offered by a solicitor, agree to a protocol where they always decide to wait before making a decision and to immediately contact a family member to vet the solicitation.
Teach Your Loved One How to Spot a Scam
Family members can only do so much policing without their loved one feeling smothered or unable to maintain their independence. Even if your loved one has been a victim of a previous scam, it’s important to not shame or blame them for the situation.
Although family members may consider power of attorney to prevent their loved ones from being victimized, it may not be the best move for a senior as it could aggravate any feelings of shame, powerlessness, and helplessness.
It’s important for seniors to feel empowered to self-manage in their current capacity and the best way families can work together to fight this issue is by helping seniors stay informed and ahead of the curve. Teach your loved one how to spot a scam by recognizing these signs.
How To Detect Senior Scams
Scammers are constantly changing the way they approach their victims, but in every scenario, there are recurring themes that you can recognize. These are the key signs of a scam:
Scammers ask for immediate action.
A participant of this survey recalled the scammer telling his elderly father “he would be subject to a lawsuit and potential jail time if he didn’t make payment immediately.” Another participant shared, “[the scammer] said my daughter was hurt and needed $1200 to be treated at a hospital. It scared me to death and I sent the money.”
If this were a legitimate circumstance, the person would be open to giving you time to call your bank, advisor, doctor, or someone of authority to verify if what is happening is true. Scammers manipulate victims by using their sense of fear and urgency so their victims won’t be able to contact others and know the truth.
Instead of reacting out of a sense of urgency, do not make any decisions. Seniors should call a family member for help and ask if the scenario seems like a scam or false report.
Scammers are persuasive, can be pushy, and will try to invoke a strong emotional reaction.
A scammer will encourage you to take immediate action without thinking. Victims who participated in our survey shared that the scammers who they spoke to were very persistent, made them feel afraid, worked them up “into a fear frenzy.” Be aware of how scammers use fear to manipulate their victims and the situation with strong emotions.
Scammers ask for personal and financial information, and money. This includes, but is not limited to, “confirming” personal or financial information such as your name and address, asking about your bank account, asking for a social security number, asking for credit card information, asking for a photocopy of your ID, asking for a wire money transfer, money in gift cards, mailed check, or asking you to buy or pay for a product, “protection plan,” or to cover shipping and handling fees for a prize you won. The list continues, but one thing remains clear: scammers are after your information. Don’t give any and end the conversation.
When encountering solicitations of any kind, instead of engaging with the caller or person, seniors should STOP, DROP, and CALL.
STOP: When a senior comes in contact with a message or solicitation from any outside source, seniors should immediately stop engaging. If they received a phone call from a stranger they don’t recognize, they should avoid picking up or stop responding to the caller.
If the caller knows their name or has their information, the senior should end the conversation immediately and hang up. If the caller truly is important and who they claim to be, then they will have other means of contacting the senior (such as through mail).
DROP: Instead of carrying on a conversation with a caller or solicitor, seniors need to drop all activity with the solicitor and avoid responding. If the person has called with urgent and important information and needs additional personal or financial information, remain calm and drop the conversation.
Do not take any action suggested by the person or have any further contact with the person. Instead, immediately end all contact with the person and call someone you trust.
CALL: In any case where it seems that an important issue is at hand or if there is fear that the solicitation may be legitimate, do not respond to the solicitor or act immediately. After stopping a call and dropping all activity with the solicitor, seniors should call a person they trust such as a family member to report what has happened.
Seniors should contact a third-party to help them vet the solicitation to see if it is legitimate or not. Check with the FTC and law enforcement sites to see if the solicitation is a scam. If the solicitation is detected as a scam, immediately call law authorities and file a report.
How to Report Senior Scams
There are several ways seniors can seek assistance when dealing with fraud, identity theft, and scams. Law enforcement authorities such as the FBI highly recommend that victims come forward and file a report. Not only will this help law enforcement detect more fraudulent activity, but it can also help others avoid the same trap.
First and foremost, seniors will need to contact their local banks for assistance if money was transferred from their accounts, and should consider filing a police report, especially if property insurance is involved. There are also several resources for filing a complaint as a victim of a scam. USAGov has a page covering common scams and fraud, housing scams, Identity Theft, IRS scams, online safety, and privacy, and can help you determine where to file your report.
The U.S. Department of Justice also created a website to help seniors navigate where to report their scams and fraud cases. The site will point you to the right resource depending on your specific circumstance.
If you have been the victim of a:
If the scammer contacted you by telephone, your case qualifies as a telephone scam. This category also includes telemarketing fraud, robocalls, and If you have lost money because of a telephone scam, file a report with the Federal Trade Commission, which has a page dedicated to helping victims determine their next steps.
The FTC’s Complaint Assistant will help you define your situation and file a report based on your case. The site will help you describe the exact type of scam that you have encountered.
For example, you may have been a victim of an imposter crime where the scammer presented themselves as a different person. This subcategory includes fake checks, romance scams, scammers pretending to be a government agency, and more. Read through each section to get a clear picture of where your case would qualify.
After filing a complaint, you can also add your phone number to the National Do Not Call Registry as a way to prevent future calls from telemarketers.
The FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center encourages victims of internet or cybercrime to file a complaint on the site. According to the FBI, an internet crime is defined as “any illegal activity involving one or more components of the Internet, such as websites, chat rooms, and/or email. Internet crime involves the use of the Internet to communicate false or fraudulent representations to consumers. These crimes may include, but are not limited to, advance-fee schemes, non-delivery of goods or services, computer hacking, or employment/business opportunity schemes.“
You can file a complaint with the FBI if you have been victimized by a company or individual outside of the US, or if you have been victimized by a company or person in the US.
Victims of Medicaid Fraud should visit the National Association of Medicaid Fraud Control Units, where you can find your local state’s webpage for Medicaid fraud and concerns. File a complaint with your state’s webpage and be sure to follow any links addressing elder fraud and elder abuse.
If you were victimized by a scammer impersonating an agent from the Social Security Administration, file a report with the SSA and notify them of your case.
For victims of an IRS scam, file your complaints on the IRS Impersonation Scam webpage.
For victims of identity theft, visit the FTC’s site to file a report and get a recovery plan for your case.
Scammed by Someone You Know
If you or your loved one is a victim of a scam by someone you know, such as another family member or acquaintance, file a report with the National Adult Protective Services Association.