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American senior citizens lost more than $193 million to phone scams in 2020, according to complaints received by the Federal Trade Commission. If you have aging parents, it's reasonable to be concerned that they (or other senior-aged loved ones) could be targeted by criminals.
You can help protect your parents from phone scams with some relatively simple steps. Here are six tips your parents can take to avoid being taken in by phone scams.
1. Get on No-Call Lists
Advise your parents to get on the National Do Not Call Registry, and help them sign up if necessary. After it takes effect (typically within a month), political fundraising calls and charity solicitations may continue, but telemarketing calls should cease—and any that come through are likely bogus.
2. Don't Trust Caller ID
Standard on most cellphones and many land-line services, caller ID is handy for identifying calls from friends and family members. But seniors should be aware that criminals can falsify, or "spoof," caller ID easily. It's wise to encourage a healthy distrust of caller ID, and to urge seniors to beware unexpected calls identified as coming from Medicare, Social Security, the IRS or financial institutions (especially ones they don't use).
A good default option for seniors is to let unsolicited calls ID'ed as coming from businesses and government agencies go to voicemail. If the caller leaves a message and your parent wants to check on it, have them call back using a phone number they look up themselves from a trusted source, such as their account paperwork, the organization's website and the like.
3. Do Not Share Personal Information
While many phone scams seek bogus payments, some also aim at capturing personal information that can be used for purposes of identity theft, bank fraud or credit fraud. Seniors should be reminded never to disclose account numbers, Social Security numbers or passwords over the phone unless they are on a call they placed themselves to a known agency or institution. If a caller asks to supply such personal information for "verification" or other purposes, the safest response is to end the call and call the organization in question themselves.
4. Educate Your Parents About Common Scare Tactics
A common approach to conning seniors (and others) is to use fear as a weapon. Remind your parents that:
- Any caller ordering immediate action to avoid cancellation of coverage, closing of an account or other financial catastrophe should be treated as suspicious.
- A caller claiming to represent a bank, insurance company or government agency will not demand immediate payment over the phone.
- If a caller claims to have kidnapped a loved one, or to need funds because a family member needs emergency care, the best thing to do is to call the family member to verify. Chances are extremely good that they're perfectly OK.
Reassure seniors that legitimate businesses and government agencies will notify them in writing if there are financial matters that need attention—and they will allow a reasonable amount of time for taking care of them. If they are subjected to scare tactics, let your loved ones know they can turn to you for advice, and that they should not provide payment or offer personal information out of fear.
5. Do Not Pay to Collect Money
A common phone scam promises intended victims a chance to collect a vast sum in sweepstakes or lottery winnings, unclaimed bank deposits or inheritances—but only after paying a transfer fee or otherwise making a payment to get the process rolling. Remind your loved ones that news of legitimate prizes and windfalls typically comes by mail, and that there are never payments required to collect them.
6. Practice Putting Down the Phone
Longstanding courtesy may make seniors naturally reluctant to end phone calls abruptly, so consider doing some role-playing with your parents to illustrate how a caller might try to intimidate them, and coach them to end any such call immediately, cutting the caller off mid-sentence if necessary.
How to Report Phone Scams
- Report telephone scams at the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) website or by calling 877-382-4357 (TTY: 866-653-4261).
- Report unwanted telemarketing calls and automated "robocalls" to the National Do Not Call Registry website.
- Report spoofed or falsified Caller ID numbers to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) website or by calling 888-225-5322 (TTY: 888-835-5322).
- If your loved ones have lost money to a phone scammer, they can help themselves and other potential victims by reporting the crime to local law enforcement and following their advice on whether to notify appropriate state or federal authorities as well.
The Bottom Line
Awareness and a little healthy skepticism are the best tools for helping parents and other aging loved ones avoid phone scammers. A little effort at educating them on what to watch for can go a long way toward preventing loss of funds and personal information, and of the embarrassment that can come with that.
If you believe your parents have been duped into disclosing personal information, consider helping them sign up for Experian's free credit monitoring service. This tool will alert them to unexpected credit report activity, which can indicate fraudulent behavior.