“Hi, Grandma. Hey, Grandpa. I’m in trouble, but please don’t tell anyone. Please. The cops arrested me and I didn’t do anything. I need $1,000 to post bail. I need you to send me money.”
So goes the clever ruse of con artists intent on scamming money from America’s seniors. While Halloween season zombies and ghouls may be frightfully fun, tricking seniors out of their cash is alarmingly scary. Every year hucksters bilk almost $3 billion from older Americans, hatching increasingly elaborate plans to break into retirement nest eggs.
Criminals who prey on the elderly find the older generation more trusting and gullible, particularly those with cognitive challenges who typically believe the “nice young man” on the phone or on their doorstep. The Federal Bureau of Investigation notes that older Americans are less likely to report a fraud because they don’t realize they’ve been taken advantage of financially or they fear their mental capacity or financial management ability will be in question by relatives.
Common fraud schemes against seniors include the following:
Internal Revenue Service (IRS) Imposter
The Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration reports at least 1.97 million Americans were targeted in 2016 for an IRS scam involving a swindler calling or showing up in person to threaten arrest if purported overdue taxes were not paid immediately. The crooks demand instant payment using a precise payment method such as a prepaid debit card or wire transfer.
Popular telephone schemes include the “help grandma” jail-time ploy or fake hospitalization; or a caller who immediately asks, “Can you hear me?”—the phone pirate wants to record the person’s voiced “yes” reply to hack their private information in the future. Many companies rely on a voiced “yes” for access to security settings and account changes.
Phishing is a cybercrime in which someone posing to be with a legitimate company attempts to lure personal information from unsuspecting individuals. Digital bandits count on people clicking on unsolicited emails and updating or verifying personal or financial information when a legitimate-looking company asks.
Medical Identity Theft
Because U.S. citizens and permanent U.S. residents age 65 and older quality for Medicare, fraud artists may pose as Medicare representatives wanting to verify personal information. Some embezzlers will offer phony services at free public health fairs and will photocopy health insurance cards or ask participants to sign blank insurance claim forms.
Funeral and Cemetery
Some plunderers will read local obituaries and then show up at funerals pretending that the deceased owes them an outstanding debt. Capitalizing on the emotions of a grieving widow or widower, the scammer will try to extort funds from relatives to settle the bogus debt. Some thieves will also sell prepaid funeral packages or cemetery plots with no intention of following through on the purchase transaction.
Counterfeit Tech Support
A growing consumer scam involves callers who pretend to be representatives from well-known technology companies like Microsoft and Apple. The thugs claim viruses have been detected on the person’s computer, and the person is directed to go to a tech support website and follow its instructions. In the process, malware installs on the call recipient’s computer to steal passwords and other personal identity information.
Investment scams like Bernie Madoff’s financial pyramid scheme often target older adults who want to protect their cash for their later years. Other hucksters promise to resell time-shares, but first ask for money to front title fees and administrative costs.
Fake Charities, Sweepstakes and Lotteries
A number of swindlers hit below the financial belt by appealing to people’s desire to help a cause, especially charities that reportedly help cancer patients, military veterans, endangered animals or any number of noble humanitarian projects. Other scams promise impressive cash prizes or exotic vacations as sweepstakes and lottery payouts, but first require paying taxes or a collection fee on the winnings.
How to Help Protect Seniors From Scams
These steps can help safeguard seniors from scam bullies:
- Make sure your senior’s phone has caller ID and he or she knows how to screen unsolicited calls. Remind elders to not answer calls from unfamiliar phone numbers.
- Advise older adults to not share personal information with strangers, especially common identifiers such as a mother’s maiden name or birth date.
- Become an authorized person on your senior’s checking account and/or the second signature on the elder’s checkbook.
- Instruct seniors to never hand over medical ID cards or read off Social Security, Medicare or health insurance numbers to anyone they do not know or trust.
- Direct elders to ask questions about and research any charity or company that asks for a donation or sells products. Charitynavigator.org is a reputable resource for investigating legitimate charities before making a financial contribution.
If a senior friend or relative is a victim of a scam, encourage them to report the incident to local police and talk to their bank or financial institution. The local area’s Adult Protective Services may also provide counsel as well as the government-sponsored Eldercare Locator at 1-800-677-1116, www.eldercare.gov.
What scams have targeted seniors you know?