New technology & communication, while opening the door for many positive avenues of progress, also makes us more susceptible as targets for scammers. These individuals reach out to as many people as possible under some guise until they find someone who falls for their tricks. The range of tricks being used by such scammers is always growing and evolving. While you cannot know the details of each one of them, you can get a sense of the general types of scams out there.
Today’s seniors came from a generation raised to accumulate savings, to trust others, and to feel ashamed if they make any mistakes that feel “foolish”. Because of their advanced age, it may take awhile for seniors to remember the events associated with the fraud and, when they finally do, the memories are somewhat faded.
Additionally, because advanced age can cause increased reliance on caregivers, family, and friends, abuse and fraud can happen with those individuals as well, breaking trust and taking advantage of need. The answer is absolutely not to resist asking for help, but to educate yourself so that you can recognize the signs of any problems and intervene appropriately.
Based on the National Council on Aging’s “Top 10 Scams Targeting Seniors,” we’ve assembled a checklist of steps you can take to prevent falling prey to fraud. Review this list with your loved ones, checking off items as you complete them and making notes for future steps. It might be a good idea to print out this list and keep it by the phone/mail spot in the house.
On a personal note, this story hits very close to home: my husband’s grandmother was recently conned out of $9,000 when a caller from Vegas pretended to be her grandson – with whom she hadn’t spoken on the phone for awhile – and claimed to have run into some financial trouble, such that he now needed both a plane ticket back home as well as some money wired over. This caller begged the grandmother “not to tell anyone” about what he was going through since it was so embarrassing. – MV
Table of Contents
- “Hi Grandma, it’s me…” – The Grandparent Scam
- “I’d like to help you deal with your loss…” – Death scams
- “Let’s reassess your home” – Real estate scams
- “Hi, I’m a Medicare Representative…” – Medicare fraud
- “Affordable prescriptions available here…” – Drug scams
- “With modern science, who needs wrinkles?” Fake anti-aging products
- “Update! Click here…” – Internet fraud (including email/phishing)
- “I am a Nigerian prince…” – Financial schemes
- “You’ve won the lottery!” Contest scams
- “Hello there, we need your help!” – Bogus Telemarketers
1. “Hi Grandma, it’s me…” – The Grandparent Scam
As described above, scammers will call seniors claiming to be a grandchild in distress, requesting assistance and also discretion – both easy to obtain from the loving grandparent eager to help.
[ ] Make a list of family contacts, and if you ever receive a distress call, make sure you’re able to confirm the distress through contact initiated by you.
[ ] Never give out your personal information.
[ ] Never wire money except through a bank wire transfer, which requires confirmation of identity from the recipient.
- Consumer Federation of America’s “Protect Yourself From the Grandparent Scam”
- FBI – The Grandparent Scam: Don’t Let It Happen To You
- Michigan Attorney General’s Warning on the Grandparents Scam
2. “I’d like to help you deal with your loss…” – Death scams
There are many potential avenues for death scams, from claiming a fraudulent outstanding debt on behalf of the recently deceased through overcharging individuals for funeral costs.
[ ] Always ask for a written price list in advance of your visit.
[ ] Never consult with just one funeral home. Shop around to better understand the services and products offered.
[ ] Check your state laws on embalming, autopsy, and other issues concerning death.
[ ] Make sure you read through and understand all of the details of the contract, including cancelation and refund policies. Do not hesitate to ask for more time to read through, to take the documents home and process. If anyone tries to pressure you to sign right away, leave; you should never be forced to sign a document under pressure.
- ABC article of FBI-approved steps to avoid funeral & cemetery scams
- AARP “Protecting the Dead From Identity Theft”
3. “Let’s reassess your home” – Real estate scams
Using fake letters from the local assessor’s office promising reassessment with potential reduction in annual tax burden for the homeowner, scammers will artificially alter the value of a home to then encourage the homeowner to take a reverse mortgage.
[ ] Always be wary of unsolicited phone calls or other contact.
[ ] Always ask for references on the person/group contacting you, and be sure to research them online using sources like Google, Yelp, etc. Ask for help from a family member, friend, or even your local librarian.
[ ] Never pay for any services in advance.
[ ] Never sign any documents without reading and understanding them in their entirety, as well as running them past your most trustworthy contact.
- Common Real Estate Scams and How to Avoid Them (Forbes.com)
- Tips for Seniors to Avoid Real Estate Fraud (California Bureau of Real Estate)
4. “Hi, I’m a Medicare Representative…” – Medicare fraud
A phone call from someone claiming to be a Medicare representative to a senior aged 65 or older is too often enough to obtain personal information, which can then be used to file false claims and extort money from the system.
[ ] Don’t give anyone your Medicare or Social Security number or card, outside of your doctor/authorized Medicare provider.
[ ] Keep track of your doctor’s appointments and check that your Medicare statements line up with the services you were provided.
[ ] Don’t bend to pressure to buy any products or services on the spot; always ask for literature and time to think it over, then research on your own, in your own time.
[ ] Be skeptical of medical products or services that are advertised as being cheaper than usually offered. These are usually scammers seeking to prey on the financially responsible.
- Report Fraud & Abuse (Medicare.gov)
- Common Scams and Identity Theft – Office of the Inspector General
5. “Affordable prescriptions available here…” – Drug scams
With prescription drugs adding to the long list of high medical costs, it’s no wonder that cheaper options would be tempting. In addition to conning people out of money, such scams are dangerous because the ‘medicine’ being sold is often expired or some other substance altogether, posing risks to the patient who takes them.
[ ] Be skeptical of door-to-door salesmen, because solicitations at your home without a previous appointment are illegal.
[ ] Only buy medicine from reputable pharmacies.
[ ] Know your prescriptions: names, doses, and appearance (size, color, etc.). This is useful not just for avoiding fraud, but also for confirming your pharmacy’s product as well as for any doctor or hospital visits you may encounter, where you will surely be asked to list the medicines (and dosages!) you’re takingn.
- FDA Guide To Protecting Yourself From Health Fraud
- Medicare Prescription drug fraud (Senior Magazine Online)
- Telemarketing Fraud – Medicare Prescription Drug Twist
6. “With modern science, who needs wrinkles?” Fake anti-aging products
Similar to the prescription drug scams, these scams involve charging patients for procedures using unregulated, privately manufactured drugs that pose serious risks.
[ ] Be wary of anything that seems too good to be true, or that purports to act as a cure-all.
[ ] Research a product extensively before trying it, including checking with the BBB (Better Business Bureau) to find out if there have been any complaints against it.
[ ] Always check with your doctor before taking any sort of supplement.
- Tips for Avoiding Fraudulent “Anti-Aging” Products (FBI.gov)
- Tips on How to Avoid Fraudulent “Anti-Aging” Products (Quackwatch)
7. “Update! Click here…” – Internet fraud (including email/phishing)
Seniors are particularly at risk for such scams due to their reduced comfort with computers and the internet. From fake anti-virus programs through phishing scams that harvest personal information through a request for updates.
[ ] Be careful about opening attachments (which often can contain viruses) as well as clicking links in emails (scammers can use letters/symbols that mimic actual letters/symbols to build a fake site that can lure you into entering your password details).
[ ] If you haven’t reset your password and receive any emails about resetting your password, independently visit the site in question and check your account. Change your password immediately; consider calling the site’s customer support line to report the incident and make sure there are no further security measures you can take.
[ ] Monitor your bank statements vigilantly for fraudulent charges. Often, scammers will start with a small charge, just to confirm that the account is active (and also so that it is less easily spotted). Call your bank immediately if you see anything strange.
8. “I am a Nigerian prince…” – Financial schemes
Seniors might be tempted to invest their money if it means increasing the longevity of their savings, and so myriad scams exist to draw them in, promising yields on their investments.
[ ] Do not ever send money to someone you don’t know.
[ ] If you receive an email claiming to be from a Nigerian prince or some other comparable obvious scam, mark it as Spam. Often, it will have some sort of “sob story” designed to get you to feel bad for the sender and want to help them in any way you can; do not fall for this.
[ ] If you receive a letter in the mail claiming to be a from a Nigerian prince (or something comparable), or requesting your banking information, take it to the FBI office nearest you or to the US Postal Inspection Service.
- Nigerian Letter of ‘419’ Fraud (FBI)
- “Nigerian Princes and Common Scams in Emails” (Windward Technology)
9. “You’ve won the lottery!” Contest scams
An announcement of a sweepstakes win is here linked with a need to invest to ‘unlock’ the prize. Victims quickly send the money and receive a check, which bounces several days later.
[ ] Sweepstakes are free; there should never be a ‘buy-in’, especially if it promises you increased odds at winning – that should be a clear red flag for potential scam activity.
[ ] Be particularly wary of contests that you did not enter but announce that you are a winner.
[ ] Always read the terms and conditions for any contest in which you participate or from which you receive correspondence, as they should lay out the rules, procedure for entry, and even the probability of winning.
- US Postal Inspectors Guide to Sweepstakes Scams Targeting Seniors
- AARP’s 10 Ways to Spot A Lottery Scam
10. “Hello there, we need your help!” – Bogus Telemarketers
Because of their comfort in using the phone for transactions and communication, seniors are a prime target for fake telemarketers, who maximize on the opportunity to use voice-only means. Some of the scams include raising money for fake charities and fake accidents.
[ ] Register your phone on the National Do Not Call Registry.
[ ] If you are being rushed through a call or asked to give/confirm your account information – don’t. You can even hang up in the middle of the call. These telemarketers are just trying to get you to say ok so that they can later claim that you allowed them to charge you.
[ ] Click on the resources below (under “More information”) to see the types of “lines” that are most commonly used by telemarketers.