Help Protect Seniors Against Fraud

If it sounds too good to be true….

We are bombarded by solicitations, contest forms and requests for donations—in our mailbox, by phone, in our e-mail, at the front door, in magazines.

[pullquote]“You have won…!”  “Your name has been selected…!”  “Here is your opportunity to buy at a fraction of the cost…!”  “Earn thousands a year at home…!”[/pullquote]

Legitimate companies and charities use these sales methods. But so do unscrupulous businesses and con artists. They defraud consumers of billions of dollars every year. And many of their victims are older adults.


Scams and unethical sales methods aimed at older people can cause serious financial loss. Here are just a few types of fraud:

  1. High pressure sales (vitamins, magazine subscriptions, etc.)
  2. Worthless investments
  3. Deceptive “work at home opportunities”
  4. Multilevel marketing (pyramid schemes)
  5. Sweepstakes and contests that require the “winner” to buy something or make an expensive 900-number call
  6. Dishonest contractors or service providers
  7. Phony charities
  8. “Phishing” and other types of identity theft
  9. Quack medical devices or treatments
  10. Medical identity theft

Older adults are targeted for a number of reasons. They often have money in the bank. They may be home during the day, with more time to listen to sales pitches. A person who feels lonely and isolated may be an easy mark for a “friendly stranger.” And many older adults find it hard to just hang up on a salesperson. Declining mental or physical condition may also be a factor.

Warn senior friends and relatives about these “red flags”—and be alert for them yourself:

  • You are offered something for nothing.
  • A salesperson is overly friendly and wants to talk about your personal life.
  • You are asked to call a 900-number.
  • You are told you have won a prize…if you buy something, pay “shipping costs,” “gift tax,” etc.
  • You receive an email asking for your personal information (Social Security number, credit card number, bank account PIN, etc.)
  • A “work at home” offer promises big money.
  • You buy vitamins or personal care products from a salesperson—who then offers you the “opportunity” to sell the products as well.
  • A salesperson hesitates to provide information about the company or charity.

How can you avoid being cheated? Comparison shop for price and quality before you decide on a purchase. Deal with reputable merchants who have a long-term interest in maintaining satisfied customers. Read online reviews (keeping in mind that companies sometimes plant good reviews to boost their ratings). Avoid any buying situation where the seller resorts to high pressure sales tactics. Be very cautious about giving out your credit card number or bank account number. Check with your health care provider before purchasing or using medical devices or food supplements. Avoid calling 900-numbers. Never buy anything just to get a free gift. Don’t respond to any e-mail offers. Shred any documents, receipts, etc. that contain personal information, such as social security number, bank account or credit card numbers.

And remember: just because someone wants you to buy something doesn’t mean you have to. Practice saying “no.”

For More Information

The FBI website offers more information on fraud targeting older adults. 
The AARP’s scams and fraud update page offers information on protecting yourself against the latest schemes.
To learn more about online fraud, visit the U.S. government’s website.

© IlluminAge AgeWise 2012

Subtle Brain Change May Cause Increased Gullibility

A 75-year-old retired professor still regularly delivered guest lectures at universities around the country. “Dad is still so sharp,” his adult children often said. And yet, his family learned that he had fallen victim to an investment scam that cost him thousands of dollars.

It has long been known that seniors are at higher risk of being defrauded. People with memory loss and other cognitive impairment are targeted by crooks who know they may be an “easy mark.” And yet many seniors who are seemingly cognitively intact also make poor decisions that surprise their families.

A recent study by University of Iowa researchers suggests a reason that some older adults become more gullible. The research, published in the journal Frontiers of Neuroscience, showed that many seniors experience deterioration of an area of the brain called the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, which controls belief and doubt. The study authors report: “This specific deficit may explain why highly intelligent…patients can fall victim to seemingly obvious fraud schemes.”

Study author Daniel Tranel encourages families to be protective of older relatives—but also to be understanding. “Instead of saying ‘How would you do something silly and transparently stupid,’ people may have a better appreciation of the fact that older people have lost the biological mechanism that allows them to see the disadvantageous nature of their decisions.”

To read more about the study, visit the University of Iowa website.

© IlluminAge AgeWise 2012