Scams That Target Senior Citizens

Mary Gormandy White
senior on phone

All-too-often, scam artists set their sights on victimizing senior citizens. According to the National Council on Aging (NCOA), "financial scams targeting seniors have become so prevalent that they're now considered 'the crime of the 21st century'." NCOA indicates that seniors in all income groups are at risk, including those with very little money and those who are very wealthy. It's important to be aware of these scams so you can protect yourself and your loved ones.

Six Common Scams Directed at Seniors

According to Rob Dunn, owner of a SYNERGY HomeCare franchise in Yuma, Arizona, "There are hundreds of ways a senior can be scammed." He points out, "Scams depend on the situation. A lonely senior is susceptible to 'romance' scams. A senior who needs home repairs is susceptible to a 'home repair' scam." For as many scams as there are, there are just as many ways to initiate the scam. Dunn explains, "Some of the scams are initiated in door-to-door fashion, though most are done on the internet or via 'cold' phone call. A lot of these scams are done via the internet and dating sites - chat rooms, email, whatever means a person uses to come into contact with seniors."

1. Romance Scams

Rob and Melissa Dunn, SYNERGY Home Care
Rob and Melissa Dunn, SYNERGY Home Care

Dunn states, "Websites that solicit dates are often used to initiate romance scams. The scammers generally start by asking for a few dollars, maybe a couple of hundred. This escalates quickly depending on the ease of obtaining each amount. Often it becomes a request for money to visit, with the scammer professing their love for the victim." Dunn points out, "Oftentimes the English used in the emails will be broken and clearly not written by a native English speaker."

Red Flags

Dunn has firsthand knowledge with this type of scam, as his company "recently dealt with a romance scam with an 87 year old client." He states, "We train our caregivers to notice red flags regarding scams. The caregiver took the client to the bank where the client made a cash withdrawal. That was immediately followed by a trip to federal express. Both are red flags but in conjunction they are a serious red flag. Sure enough the 'to' address was Nigeria and the client has no family in Nigeria."

Avoiding the Scam

Dunn advises, "If you see your loved one trolling dating sites, they need to understand that they are quite likely going to be approached by a scammer. The same way that a plumber might identify a 'mark; by providing answers to whatever problem or scenario the senior presents." Do your best to make the risks clear. If the senior insists on interacting on dating sites, Dunn suggests encouraging them to make sure that "any picture sent to a senior that professes to be the person that 'loves' them should include a time stamped mark like a current newspaper or something that minimizes a scammer's ability to send random photos they find on the web." This can help them weed out some scammers, but not all.

2. Home Repair Scam

According to an American Bar Association newsletter article, "home improvement scams are quite frequently targeted at seniors." These are typically door-to-door scams, with a 'handyman' stopping by and offering to do work on a senior citizen's house at a discount rate because they are supposedly finishing up another project in the neighborhood. These scammers will often tell the resident that the home needs repairs in an area that the person would not be able to access on their own, such as the roof or gutters - even if no repair work is actually needed. If the victim agrees to allow some work to be done, while the scammer is there he will point out other items in need of repair (that may not actually need to be repaired) to maximize the take. These scammers sometimes don't actually do any work at all, or do very poor work, with the older home owner or renter none-the-wiser, at least not right away. The website for the Illinois Attorney General's office points out that that these types of scammers may even rob victims if they are let inside to do inspections or perform work.

Avoiding the Scam

You can help keep your older loved ones from falling victim to this kind of scam by doing property checks for them periodically, informing them of what needs to be done and helping them schedule needed repairs with reputable contractors. Instruct them never to let strangers who show up without being invited into their homes or yards.

3. Grandparent Scam

According to NCOA and CBS News, scammers sometimes call senior citizens pretending to be their grandchildren and ask for money. NCOA indicates that scammers who use this approach trick unsuspecting seniors by opening the phone call with a statement along the lines of "Hi Grandma, do you know who this is?" Since the scammer has addressed the senior as grandma, the unsuspecting victim replies with a grandchild's name and, of course, the scammer reassures grandma that she has guessed correctly. The caller then goes on to give a sob story about desperate financial need, being unable to turn to his parents, and asking for money to be transferred using a method where identification won't be needed to collect. The scammer typically gets grandma to agree to keep the financial assistance secret from the 'real' grandchild's parents.

Avoiding the Scam

One way to try to prevent this is to instruct the grandchildren to all use a standard way of greeting their grandparents, and to make sure that the grandparents know that anyone using a different kind of greeting is not being truthful.

4. IRS Scams

There have been numerous instances of scammers claiming to be with the IRS over the years, for the purposes of getting personal and financial information that can be used to steal from them. John Hewitt, CEO and founder of Liberty Tax Service, indicates that one of the most recent IRS scams "involves an alleged IRS agent calling to let you know you've been a victim of identity theft." He states, "The caller may ask to verify your personal information and tell you that you must file a paper return for Tax Year 2014. The call may seem legitimate, but it is not. One immediate red flag is the phone call. The IRS typically contacts taxpayers by U.S. mail first."

Avoiding the Scam

Seniors need to know never to give information to anyone claiming to be an IRS agent by phone or electronically. Not only is the IRS unlikely to call you, they also will not contact you by email. If you or an elderly relative receive a call or email from someone saying they represent the IRS, do not give them your information. Instead, take the caller's information and contact the IRS yourself at 1-800-829-1040. You can also visit your tax adviser and let him or her help you sort it out." Chances are, there is nothing to sort out at all - you were just targeted by someone hoping to gain access to your bank account.

5. Health Care/Health Insurance Fraud

According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), seniors are often targeted by fraudulent health care or health insurance schemes. Information published on the FBI's website indicates that these types of scams can take on many different forms, from fake medical tests given in places where large numbers of seniors live or gather for social purposes that are billed to their health insurance to medical equipment companies that offer to provide seniors with no-cost products - often items they do not need and that may not even be delivered, yet are billed to their insurance.

Avoiding the Scam

To avoid falling victim to this kind of scams, the FBI advises seniors to avoid giving health insurance information to any person or company that has not provided you with medical services. It is also important to avoid signing insurance claim forms that are not filled out or blanket billing authorizations and to rely on your physician to order medical equipment rather than other sources, even if they are offering 'free' equipment.

6. Telemarketing Scams

According to AARP, when it comes to telemarketing scams, "people over 50 years of age are especially vulnerable and account for more than half of all victims." AARP's Fraud Fighter Call Center exists to help combat this problem. The Center's director is quoted in an article from Bankrate.com saying, "Scammers know senior citizens answer their phone, and are reluctant to hang up on anyone." The Bankrate.com article also points out that would-be scammers can purchase lists with phone numbers of seniors, many of whom may be receptive to fraudulent calls such as scammers calling to tell them that they've won a prize but need to share their bank account numbers to pay for taxes or shipping fees. This is just one example of the many telephone scams that target seniors.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has shut down numerous telemarketing scams targeting seniors, including one in March of 2014 that "drew in $20 million dollars between May 2011 and December 2013" simply by lying to seniors to trick them in to sharing bank account information. You can use the onlne FTC Complaint Assistant to file a complaint if you or your loved one receives telemarketing calls that seem to be scams. The FTC relies on consumer reports to help identify these types of fraudulent operations.

Avoiding the Scam

For immediate protection it is important to make sure that seniors know that they should absolutely never give bank account numbers, their social security number, credit or debit card numbers or any other personal information to anyone who calls them or in response to junk mail. The National Crime Prevention Council PDF called Seniors and Telemarketing Fraud 101 is a handy guide to help educate seniors on how to protect themselves from such scams.

Protecting Vulnerable Seniors

When asked how family members can help protect senior and elderly relatives, Dunn responded by saying, "This is a tough question because, unless a senior is diagnosed and incapable of making their own decisions, a person has rights. These include the right to make a bad decision. As citizens we are granted certain inalienable rights that are not easily denied. Just because a family member knows a senior is susceptible to a scam does not mean there is a lot that can be done in terms of preventative measures."

Dunn states, "The only way law enforcement will get involved is if the victim is willing to profess themselves a victim, something that is often impeded by the feeling of embarrassment the victim feels and the outside chance they might somehow get their money back if they continue to help the scammer. It's much like a gambling addiction. The moment the victim stops sending money they lose any possibility of getting their funds returned, but if they continue to send more money there is at least a chance they will receive the payment the scammer has promised."

Hewitt warns, "It seems as if scammers come up with different ways every day to steal your money and your identity." Dunn advises, "Monitoring a senior's activity and educating them are the best options to help protect seniors in most cases." He recommends, "Preventative conversations are ideal if you can educate a senior before they are exposed to the possibility of being scammed."

Scams That Target Senior Citizens