Scammers are always coming up with new tactics, and some scams target seniors specifically. Scammers may target seniors because they are perceived as having more wealth or being less likely to report the crime. Fraudsters often rely on seniors' desire to have a good retirement, form close relationships later in life and care for family members.
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Consumer Sentinel Network Data Book for 2021 found that younger people are more likely to report losing money to fraud—41% of people ages 20 to 29 compared with 18% of those 70 to 79 years old. However, people who are 70-plus report losing more money on average ($800 versus $500). Consumers who are over 80 report even higher median losses of $1,500.
Many of the current scams targeting seniors fall under the broad "impersonator" scam category, where the scammer pretends to be someone to gain your trust or scare you into complying.
The Grandparent Scam
The grandparent scam happens when a scammer reaches out to someone and pretends to be their grandchild. The scammer will often make up a distressful situation—such as being stuck in jail or behind on an important bill—and ask for financial assistance.
They might ask you to send money immediately using a wire transfer, or to buy gift cards and read off the card's information. To avoid raising suspicions from other family members, the scammer might ask you to keep everything a secret. But the safest option is to verify the situation by calling a family member who knows where your grandkid is right now. You could also ask the caller a few questions that only your actual grandchild would know how to answer.
Medicare scams involve scamming Medicare beneficiaries by claiming to be a Medicare representative and asking for personal and medical information. The scammer might tell you that you need a new Medicare card or offer you discounted additional coverage. But they'll then use or sell your personal and medical information for identity theft and medical identity theft.
Alternatively, some Medicare scams advertise free or low-cost services or equipment to seniors. But the scammers deliver shoddy services or equipment and then bill Medicare for the full amount.
Online Romance Scams
Romance scams occur when someone builds a romantic or platonic relationship with you and then starts asking you for money. The scammers might create complete social media profiles and have sophisticated backstories for their fake identities. Also, while dating sites are a common starting point, some scammers will approach you on social media or through online games.
The FTC reports that people lost $1.3 billion to romance scams in 2021 alone, more than in any other FTC fraud category. People of all ages fall victim to romance scams, but median losses for victims who are over 70 were $9,000—that's compared with $750 for those ages 18 to 29.
It may be a long con, with someone taking weeks or months getting to know you before asking for anything. Once they do, the scammers may ask you to invest in a business proposition or send them money.
Employment and Money Mule Scams
Seniors who want to stay active and earn money may be looking for a new job, and scammers can target this group in several ways. You may come across promises for easy work-from-home jobs and be told all you need to do is pay for training—you'll pay, but there isn't a real job available. Or, you might be asked for your personal information, which will then be used for illegal purposes.
Criminals will also look to recruit "money mules" through job ads and romance scams. As a money mule, you'll be asked to deposit funds into your bank account and transfer money to someone else. It may be legitimate in the sense that you'll be paid for the work. In reality, though, you may be laundering criminals' funds, and you could be personally liable even if you aren't aware that you're doing something illegal.
Online Shopping Scams
Scammers set up websites that seem like legitimate storefronts but only exist to collect your payment information or sell you stolen goods. These sites can look surprisingly real, and you may come across them on social media or in websites' comments sections.
The FTC highlighted online shopping scams as the most frequent type of fraud that targets older adults in its annual report to Congress on protecting older adults for 2021. In some cases, these reports were for websites that sold them masks or other limited-supply items during the pandemic and then never delivered the products. You can look for red flags on websites you visit, such as surprisingly low prices and spelling errors.
There are different types of phone scams targeting seniors, including robocalls that offer free medical supplements, devices or discounts. But if you respond, you may be tricked or pressured into sharing your address, personal information and a credit card account number. The scammers can then use these stolen credentials to commit credit card fraud.
Many other scams also start with a phone call, such as IRS imposter scams—when the scammer calls and claims that you owe taxes and could be sent to jail if you don't pay them right away. However, the IRS will never initiate contact by phone and won't ask for unusual payment methods, such as gift cards.
Home Repair Scams
Older adults may be more likely to own homes and be at home throughout the day, and scammers will knock on doors or make calls to offer home repair services. You might also be targeted if you live somewhere that was recently hit by a natural disaster. Or, the scammer might be selling home improvements, such as energy-efficient upgrades or solar panels that could save you money over time.
After accepting an initial deposit, the scammer may disappear or do subpar work that could lead to more trouble than help. Some scammers even try to get victims to apply for financing to cover the cost of the job.
Tech Support Scams
Tech support scams often start with a popup or online advertisement warning you that your device is infected or vulnerable. You may be prompted to install an update or new software, which turns out to be malicious software that can take over your device or steal your information.
In a different twist, you might be prompted to call tech support for help—but the tech support person could trick you into giving them control of your computer. Or, they may tell you that you need to pay for additional protection, support or an upgrade.
Sweepstakes and Lottery Scams
You might get a call, email, text or letter telling you that you've won a prize or can enter into a sweepstake—but it's all made up. The scammers will often tell you that you need to pay upfront, perhaps to buy sweepstake tickets or to cover a processing fee. They'll keep the payment and you won't get anything in return. Additionally, they may also ask for your personal information, which they can then steal and use.
A charity scam is when scammers persuade victims to send money to a fake charitable cause. They might pressure you to act quickly, and sometimes use a current event as a reason for why you need to send money right now. But before giving money away, you can research charities on sites like Charity Navigator and CharityWatch. If you want to donate, visit the official website or call the organization using the information from search results.
Basic Steps to Avoid Senior Scams
While scammers often use different premises and tactics when targeting victims, a few basic practices can help keep you safe. Share these with friends and family members as well, as they can help protect people of all ages:
- Be wary of anything that seems too good. A high-paying job that you can do from home, free medical care or a wealthy love interest can all seem great. But if it feels like you just won the jackpot, you may want to step back and reevaluate the situation. You can also always ask friends and family members for their opinions.
- Watch out for incoming communications. Scammers can make phone calls and emails that look like they're coming from legitimate companies and government organizations. But it's often best to ignore people that contact you, or, at a minimum, avoid sharing private information. Looking up the organization's contact information and initiating the exchange yourself is a safer option.
- Add extra security to your accounts. Many online accounts let you turn on multifactor authentication. You may then need to enter a code that's sent to your phone or email, or that you generate with an app, before accessing your account. Enabling this extra security measure can keep scammers out of your accounts even if they get hold of your username and password.
- Avoid odd payment types. Scammers will often ask you to send them money with a wire transfer, money order, cryptocurrency, payment app or gift card. These can all be red flags that you're talking to a criminal.
If a scammer tricks you into sharing information or handing over money, you can report the fraud to the FTC on ReportFraud.ftc.gov. Depending on what happened, you may also want to file a police report or get a personalized recovery plan from the FTC using IdentityTheft.gov.
Sign Up for Monitoring Services
Even with the best precautions in place, you may want to monitor your credit and identity for signs of identity theft and fraud. Experian offers free credit report monitoring with real-time alerts if there's any suspicious activity detected. You can also sign up for Experian IdentityWorksSM, which monitors additional databases and the dark web for your personal information. It also includes identity theft insurance and support, which can help you recover from identity theft and pay for associated costs.