10 Scams That Target the Elderly
Don't let yourself or anyone you love get taken in by all the scammers and con artists out there that just love targeting the elderly.
It’s Older Americans Month. That’s why we’re drawing attention to different kinds of financial problems that the elderly often face. Recently, we published an article concerning financial elder abuse: specifically, how to spot it and how to stop it.
Because the elderly tend to need assistance in managing their finances, they’re especially vulnerable to being taken advantage of. For this post, we spoke to the experts to find out the most common scams that target the elderly so you can be on the lookout and protect yourself and those you love.
1. The grandkid scam.
Many grandparents would do anything for their grandkids, whether it’s slipping them an extra cookie behind their parent’s back or … freeing them from a foreign prison. Scammers are aware of this and won’t hesitate to try and take advantage of it.
“I used to work in a bank and was trained on the newest scams so I could help prevent customers, primarily elderly customers, from falling victim to these scams,” recounted Ian Dolan, president of Crank 11 Marketing. “One of the biggest ones that is still prevalent and targets the elderly involves a phone call with the scammer pretending to be the grandchild of the elderly victim.
“Basically, the scammers call and say ‘Grandma/Grandpa, it’s your grandson. I’m down in Mexico and am in jail. I need you to send me a money order for $1,000 so I can get out. I lost all of my debit cards and have no way to pay.’
“They then wait for the victim to suggest a name, then the scammer says they are that person. Then the scammer typically tells the victim to not tell anyone because it’s embarrassing or they can get in trouble with their job or school. They do this to try to prevent the victim from telling anyone else who may know about this scam or know that their grandson with that name is not in Mexico.
“I have seen several elderly people come into the bank to purchase a money order. We are trained to ask nosy questions if this is a customer we don’t know or recognize that this is not common for a familiar customer. I have stopped several elderly people from falling victim to this scam and typically convinced them to reach out to the named grandchild or their own child to verify their location before they make the money order or cash withdrawal. One woman was fully convinced that the voice was her grandson and we had to give her the cash, and she sent money via Western Union.
“To avoid this scam, simply reach out to any family members to verify this story. It is far more likely that someone is trying to scam you than the likelihood of your grandchild being in prison. If you are unsure, try calling back, and ask a question, such as ‘What is my dog’s name?.’ This type of open-ended question will allow you to verify that the scammer is indeed not your grandchild.”
2. Website scams.
Most scams these days have some sort of online component. And the elderly, as a group, tend to be less capable online.
“I find that the most pernicious scams that affect my clients are those that are out in the open,” explained personal injury attorney Brad Biren. “Many baby boomers want to demonstrate that they are capable and tech-savvy, so they will try and do things online by themselves. This demographic will go to Google and then type in the name of the site they want to go to rather than the actual URL. The first links that populate their results are usually not the company they actually want to engage with online.
“For example, they may want to go to Citibank. Rather than typing in ‘www.citibank.com’, they will just type in the name ‘citibank’ into the Google browser. They then erroneously click on one of the first search results and they are taken to a nefarious site which was not their intended destination. I usually get involved trying to fix their errors.”
3. Email scams.
Even if an elderly person knows not to go to suspicious sites, scammers may still reach out to them directly.
“There are many cyber threats to be aware of in today’s digital age, but here I’ll aim to discuss one of the most frequent culprits—email,” warned Brian Gill, co-founder of Gillware Data Recovery. “Fraudulent emails come in all shapes and sizes, but I’d like to share some tips to help an elderly person, or anyone for that matter, easily defend against them.
“If you receive an email where the ‘To’ field is left blank, it’s a clear signal that it didn’t come from the perceived sender. When an email from a company has spelling errors or bad grammar, it should be another warning sign. Large companies have copywriters and editors who make sure email communications are grammatically correct. Also, if the email begins with ‘Hello’ but doesn’t actually state your name, that’s another red flag.
“When checking your email, stay suspicious and on alert. Often times a fraudulent email will try to scare you by saying something was stolen or that you’ve won a prize. Rather than clicking on the links from your email, just go directly to the actual website and sign in how you normally would. You should also have some form of internet security installed. Norton AntiVirus or McAfee SiteAdvisor are two helpful tools that can prevent disaster in the event you do open a malicious email.”
4. Home scams.
Many elderly people choose to move to warmer states to spend their retirement. There’s a reason why we have a trope about Florida as a retirement home state (even though it might not be the best state to retire to). That means a retiree may be looking to sell their house. And that’s where the scammers come in.
“Elderly homeowners who are trying to sell their house need to be aware of potential ‘We Buy Houses’ scams,” urged Shawn Breyer, owner of Breyer Home Buyers. “Real estate investors do not have to obtain a license to practice and are not held to any ethical standards. If you come across the wrong investment company, you could be exposed to high-pressure tactics and super low offers.
“We met a lady who owed $139,000 that sold her house to an investor for $53,000. She thought that she was being offered $153,000, not $53,000. Since it was a binding contract, and per the mortgage verbiage, she had to come out of pocket $86,000 to pay off the remaining loan.
“It’s important that a family member help the elderly when selling their house to make sure that you are dealing with a reputable company. A good way to initially verify their credibility is to read their Google Reviews. These are real people giving real feedback about a company.”
5. Phone scams.
Not every “scam” is necessarily illegal. Many businesses will try to take advantage of their customers in every way they can and, as we’ve said, the elderly make easier targets.
“It is more than just individual bad actors that are scamming the elderly,” warned Jacqueline Hugo, CTO of Hugomatica. “With the complexity of cell phone plans, especially data plans, the elderly are at a disadvantage. They often do not understand the difference between using WiFi (typically free) and cellular data (which can have a per MB charge, if they don’t have an unlimited plan). And they can easily end up paying $200 a month for extra cell data usage.
“So they probably should upgrade to an unlimited plan if they are going over their domestic cellular data allotment on a regular basis. And they should try to use WiFi whenever possible.
“Additionally, for international travel, most carriers offer a $10 per day plan that covers a large number of countries. However, the elderly may not understand that there will be extra charges.”
6. Medicare scams.
Pretending that you’re working for the government is a tried and true scammer tactic. That tactic is often applied against the elderly.
“Scammers targeting older adults often use Medicare as an opportunity to commit fraud,” advised Kathryn Casna, a Medicare specialist from Eligibility.com. “Some scammers pose as officials from the Medicare program, insisting that people give them personal information such as a Social Security number or birth date over the phone. The goal here is identity theft.
“Although Medicare is sending out new Medicare cards that don’t contain the beneficiary’s Social Security number, scammers are using this as an opportunity for identity theft. These criminals ask for personal information and threaten to add fees or stop coverage. They say they need this information in order to send out a new Medicare card, so if a beneficiary Googled whether they should be getting a new Medicare card, the call seems legitimate.
“The recent $1.2 billion fraud in which seemingly legitimate companies prescribed unnecessary medical equipment is an example of another type of scam. These (and many other) scams require victims to give their personal information to impersonators over the phone. Since Medicare never calls beneficiaries to ask for such information, the easiest way to avoid these scams is to simply hang up.
“If you’re concerned about your Medicare coverage in any way, call Medicare yourself (so you know you’re reaching official government employees) and check on it. Finally, report all suspected scams to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).”
7. IRS scams.
While pretending you’re working for Medicare is an effective means to scam the elderly, pretending you’re working for the IRS might have an even greater impact. After all, the IRS can send you to jail, and no one, including the elderly, wants to hang out in jail.
“In recent years, there has been a significant increase in tax scams targeting thousands of Americans and costing them millions of dollars,” explained David Cawley, CFO at Micah Fraim, CPA. “From my experience, it seems that many of these scams are starting to skew towards targeting the elderly. While social media scams are certainly on the rise, the ‘old-school’ scams via traditional means like mail, telephone, and email, are ever more increasing.
“According to the FBI, telemarketing fraud is one of the most—if not the most—common ways the elderly are targeted. The most important piece of advice I can give to any taxpayer is that the IRS initiates most contact with taxpayers through regular mail via the United States Postal Service. What the IRS does not do is contact taxpayers by email, text message, or social media. Speaking specifically to seniors, it’s important to keep in mind that it’s very rare for the IRS to contact anyone via the phone. If you’re ever contacted through one of those mediums by someone representing themselves as the IRS, it’s most likely a scam.
“In some circumstances, such as having an overdue tax bill or getting audited, the IRS may call or visit a taxpayer in person, but even then, taxpayers should have received several IRS notices through regular mail beforehand. Also, according to the IRS, over 70 percent of audits in 2017 were done via regular mail correspondence, so even if you do get audited it’s most likely to happen via regular mail and not in person.”
8. Medication scams.
Many elderly people need medication. Medication can be very expensive. The elderly struggle with the internet. These are all facts, and scammers are aware of them.
“If you find an ad or website on the internet claiming to sell prescription drugs for very cheap, it is a scam,” warned Justin Lavelle, Chief Communications Director for BeenVerified.com. “Usually, they take your money and end up sending you fake or harmful drugs instead of true medications. For your safety, only accept prescriptions from your personal, trusted doctor.”
9. Charity scams.
Most people want to help others. Scammers want to help themselves by making you think you’re helping others.
“Generally, this happens after some kind of natural disaster,” advised Lavelle. “You will get a phone call asking for donations to help the victims of the event. If you want to help, only donate to well-known charities and organizations. Do your research before you donate money to anyone you do not know—even it seems to be for a good cause.”
10. Sweepstakes scams.
Everyone likes winning money! Unfortunately, many sweepstakes are actually scamstakes.
“This scam tells you that you have won a significant amount of money, but you need to pay a fee to receive it,” advised Lavelle. “Once you’ve sent your money, you get a check in the mail that will bounce after a few days. To keep this from happening to you, know that if you really win something, you never have to pay to get it. Another thing to keep in mind is that if you do not remember entering a contest, you probably did not. Always confirm the info before sending money to any kind of ‘contest.’”
Whether you’re old or planning to be old one day, be sure to keep an eye out for these scams. You weren’t born yesterday, after all.
Brad Biren is the newest addition to Johnston Martineau, joining as a senior associate in the fall of 2017. He holds an undergraduate degree from Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, and his law degree from the University of Iowa. His broad and varied experience with the law and work in the public sector includes assisting with prosecutions at the US Attorney’s Office in Davenport, project management at the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole, and nonprofit management throughout the United States.
Shawn Breyer started Breyer Home Buyers with a mission to empower people to enjoy life by simplifying and solving their property issues. He and his wife flip 35+ homes in the metro Atlanta area every year.
David Cawley is the Chief Financial Officer for Micah Fraim, CPA (@MFraim89) and is a CPA licensed in the state of Virginia. He holds an MBA and Masters’ in Accounting and Finance. David and his firm specialize in business development and have worked with hundreds of entrepreneurs, helping advise them on how to attain the best results for their businesses.
Ian Dolan is the President of the digital marketing agency Crank 11 and manages campaigns for local and national companies to increase lead generation results. He also makes it a priority in helping his community learn the newest strategies in digital marketing and serves on the Board of Directors for two marketing education non-profits.
As a Founder and Chief Technology officer for Hugomatica, Jacqueline Hugo is the lead technical designer for 6 apps that are currently available in the App Store. Her goal for Hugomatica is to create fun, useful apps for life and learning. Since all of the App code is built using Swift, the Hugomatica apps are robust, current and optimized. She utilizes the scrum agile software development framework throughout the process for product development. In that way, Hugomatica is able to adapt to the fast-changing market and take advantage of new ideas and inspiration on a regular basis.
Justin Lavelle is a Scams Prevention Expert and the Chief Communications Officer of BeenVerified.com (@BeenVerified). BeenVerified is a leading source of online background checks and contact information. It helps people discover, understand and use public data in their everyday lives and can provide peace of mind by offering a fast, easy and affordable way to do background checks on potential dates. BeenVerified allows individuals to find more information about people, phone numbers, email addresses, and property records.
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