Older adults have always been a popular target for con artists and scammers. They tend to be well-mannered, hesitant to shut the door in someone’s face or hang up the phone on a persistent caller. And there is a reason that those trying to part seniors with their cash are persistent: older people, especially those who were born in the Depression and around World War II, are often careful savers, with a nest egg that is tempting to the dishonest. And, of course, with baby boomers entering their golden years, the ranks of seniors are swelling, meaning more people are subject to financial abuse. The top ten scams targeting seniors in 2019 have proven very lucrative.
There’s a good reason that fraud against seniors has been referred to as an epidemic. Older Americans are swindled out of $2.9 billion of their hard-earned cash each year. While this obviously causes them financial harm, there are ripple effects to their general health and well-being. When their funds are depleted by fraud, seniors may be unable to afford nutritious food, medicine and healthcare, or even their housing expenses. Older adults who are defrauded may be embarrassed that they were taken in by a scammer, and too proud to tell family, friends, or the authorities. They may also fear that their family will think they are no longer capable of managing their own affairs.
The ripple effect of fraud against seniors extends further for some families: seniors who have nowhere else to turn after being cheated may become dependent on their adult children for financial support, placing a strain on the whole family.
Here are the top ten scams targeting seniors in 2019, as set forth in a publication from the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging:
In this scam, a caller will claim to be from the IRS, calling about taxes or penalties the senior allegedly owes, and trying to get financial information or instructing the senior to purchase gift cards with which to make payments. More recent calls have claimed to be following up on unanswered letters sent by the IRS.
These automated calls often originate overseas but "spoof" local phone numbers to make callers believe they originate closer to home, sometimes from a government entity.
In this scam, phone callers, sometimes with what looks like a toll-free 876 area code (876 is the country code for Jamaica) call victims and tell them they have won a prize or been entered to win one. In order to claim their prize, they are instructed to send payment for processing fees and taxes through prepaid debit cards, electronic wire transfers, money orders and sometimes even cash.
This particular scam increased almost 50% in frequency between 2013 and 2017, and it is estimated that losses attributable to it top $300 million per year.
In this scam, con artists call victims and claim to be affiliated with a technology company such as Microsoft. They claim that the victim's computer has been infected by a virus and persuade the victim to grant them remote access so they can help to fix the problem. This scam has a high success rate relative to most other victim-assisted fraud.
Illegal or improper use of an elderly person's assets. Unlike most scams on this list, this is often perpetrated by a person close to the senior.
A caller will reach an older person, claiming to be a grandchild in need of help or someone holding the grandchild. The con artist persuades the grandparent to send money by wire transfer to aid the grandchild or procure their release.
As of 2016, over 15 million American adults had used an online dating service, and that number increasingly includes seniors. Con artists perpetrate "romance scams" on seniors in a couple of ways.
As of 2016, over 15 million American adults had used an online dating service, and that number increasingly includes seniors. Con artists perpetrate "romance scams" on seniors in a couple of ways. They may create profiles on dating sites, seeking to profit financially by gaining the trust of a vulnerable older person and exploiting their loneliness, getting them to send money to the person with whom they believe themselves to be in a relationship.
Scammers may also create false social media profiles, often pretending to be a U.S. soldier. They send friend requests and build trust with seniors over the course of weeks or many months, promising never to ask for money, but always eventually doing so. They may claim a medical emergency or to need funds to travel to the U.S. The con artist will often use the name and photograph of a real soldier in order to be more credible.
Con artists call seniors claiming to represent the Social Security Administration and request Social Security numbers and other information that allow them to access seniors' financial accounts. In a related scam, callers may offer to help victims fill out an application for disability or free medical equipment, requesting personal information to do so.
This type of fraud entered the top ten list in 2018. Like IRS impersonation or Social Security impersonation, the caller pretends to be from a governmental agency: state, federal, or local law enforcement. The senior is told there is a warrant out for their arrest and given a brief deadline, often by the end of the day, by which the police will come to arrest them for ignoring summonses. To enhance credibility, the con artist may "spoof" a legitimate phone number, making the call appear on Caller ID as if it comes from a real police agency.
The caller offers to help by accepting payment to resolve the issue short of arrest, or to take personal identifying information to clear up the misunderstanding and prevent an arrest. As more people become aware of the IRS impersonation scam, some con artists appear to be turning to the impending lawsuit scam.
Many of the other scams are geared toward accessing information that will allow them to steal seniors' identities, drain their financial accounts, and rack up debt in their names.
The first step to protecting your loved ones is to warn them about known scams that are going around. Educate yourself, too: for instance, if your elderly mother seems to be buying a large number of gift cards when you take her shopping, try to find out why. Often, scammers will get older people to buy and send gift cards as a way to get their hands on money in a way that is harder to trace. There are other ways to protect your loved ones, as well.
Start by talking to your parents and older relatives. We may assume that they should know not to give financial information or personal information like Social Security numbers to people who call or show up at our doors, but many older people could use a reminder. Government agencies, especially, will not request this information on the phone or via an email. Remind your loved ones that it is okay to hang up on someone who is asking for personal information, or to refuse to open the door to someone they don’t know.
Monitor your loved one’s credit and financial information. Get a copy of their credit report (with their permission if you don’t have a power of attorney) and review it regularly. Look over bank statements and credit card bills for unusual withdrawals or charges. Speaking of credit cards, help your loved one evaluate whether they need all the cards they have. Cancel those that aren’t needed, and consider lowering credit limits on the rest.
If your loved one is willing, ask them to grant you a durable power of attorney so that you can manage their finances, even if, and after, they become too ill to manage their own business. If you have further questions about protecting your vulnerable loved ones from con artists, contact our law office.