According to the FBI, over 92,000 older Americans fell victim to financial fraud in 2021, amounting to almost $1.7 billion in losses. Many of these financial scams come in the form of phone calls that specifically target seniors.
To help you and your loved ones avoid falling prey to these scammers, we’ve compiled a list of the seven most common scams. Read on to learn how to protect yourself.
In this scam, a caller attempts to convince you they are a family member who has just been in a serious accident and needs immediate medical funds. The scammer may seem distressed or be in tears in order to confuse their target, before claiming to have incurred bills from the “accident” and requesting the target wire them cash.
My own grandmother was targeted by this scam. The caller contacted her, claiming to be me (they even looked up my name before contacting her). After telling my grandmother her grandson had recently gotten into a car crash, the caller then requested she transfer him $20,000. The caller went on to express embarrassment at the whole situation, insisting that my grandmother not tell other family members about the incident.
Pretty convincing, right?
Your personal information is private for a reason, and your bank, credit card company, insurance provider, and doctor will never ask for it over the phone or email. Asking for this information is illegal and a sign of a scam. Be sure to ask these callers for specific family information beyond names; a scammer will not be able to answer.
In my grandmother’s case, she contacted my father and asked if I was all right. My father then called me and learned that I was having a lovely time camping in Joshua Tree National Park — no accidents here!
This scam targets people who may need extra income with a fake job opportunity. A “secret shopper” may call, claiming to work with a wealthy or famous person in need of someone to buy expensive items for them using the target’s personal funds. The scammer will then ask the target to purchase and mail the items to the nonexistent client, only to disappear once the items are sent.
More advanced versions of this scam may involve access to financial information with a promise of compensation that never comes.
No legitimate entity will ask for your banking or other personal information. Also use your common sense: Some wealthy individuals have personal shoppers, but it is extremely unlikely that these jobs are given out to strangers over the phone.
The scammer will pretend to be a representative of Medicare or another health-care entity. They’ll ask for the target’s personal information, such as a Social Security number or Medical ID. Once they have it, they may be able to make purchases or impersonate their victim in order to commit other crimes.
No reputable medical institution will ever ask for personal information over the phone. Matters like these are only discussed in person. If you are a caregiver or living with your loved one, it may be prudent to be present when they make important phone calls or do not recognize a caller.
A scammer will call claiming the target’s computer is at risk from a virus or in need of an essential update, and they’ll offer to install virus protection or the update. They are counting on their target’s unfamiliarity with computers. As always, this requires private information to access personal devices. If a scammer gains access to your personal computer, they will have access to any information you’ve kept on it, including passwords and other important documents.
Since many people use the same password for multiple accounts, it could leave banking, email, and other online accounts vulnerable to infiltration.
Similar to banks and medical professionals, real tech-support professionals will not ask for your personal information via phone or email. Many computers also come with built-in protection, so it’s unlikely your device would not let you know if something is wrong or if it needs an update.
In this particularly manipulative scam, a caller will pretend to be a victim’s grandchild before trying to gain access to private information. They may say something like, “Hello, Grandpa! Can you guess who this is?” and then claim to be whoever the named response is. The scammer may also claim to have misplaced or never received a monetary gift, and be in need of an immediate transfer.
Ask the caller specific questions only your real relative would be able to answer, such as the names of pets or anniversary dates. Try to think of information someone couldn’t easily find online. It is unlikely a scammer will be able to answer.
Sometimes scammers pretend to represent charities seeking donations, taking advantage of the victim’s good intentions. The scammer may claim to have been referred by another charity or agency and ask for an over-the-phone payment via credit card or other financial information. That can result in serious financial fraud using your information.
Legitimate organizations will never ask for personal information over the phone. Similar to the grandparent scam, it is unlikely they will be able to answer specific questions. Furthermore, charities keep their information lists private and never “refer” people.
The scammer will offer their victim a large sum of money, but only if the victim pays a smaller sum to guarantee or secure the larger payment. The scammer may claim to represent a prize-granting entity like the lottery, or an inheritance the victim has come into. They may even ask for financial information in order to directly deposit the cash, which, of course, never comes.
Try to remember to ask for specifics about the alleged sum or prize and where it comes from. Trusts are often distributed by executors with power of attorney, who would not require something like a deposit. Even representatives of contests are required to provide specific information about who they represent in order to avoid fraud.
If you are concerned your loved one is susceptible to telemarketing scams, consider a conversation about recent calls and general phone use. Going over red flags and common-sense avoidance with your loved ones may also help them feel more in control.
Also consider looking into identity theft protection services, such as call screening and fraud alerts on your loved one’s credit and debit cards. Preparing early can help you in the long run.
To learn more about protecting your identity, check out our guide to senior identity theft and our rundown of the best identity theft protection for seniors.