TOP INTERNET SCAMS AFFECTING THE ELDERLY
According to the Wall Street Journal, It’s a story that happens all too often. Angie Kennard’s father had met someone on a dating website, and the woman quickly began pouring her heart out to the 79-year-old despite never meeting him in person. During the exchanges, the woman started requesting money to support herself and her daughter, and that “support” blossomed into $700,000 over the course of a couple years.
Kennard didn’t find any of this out until after her father handed over his finances after he had a stroke, the woman had scammed her father out of all of his savings.
While most scams may not be as severe this one, the act of scamming elderly people is a massive problem in the United States. Scams that start on the Internet are becoming more and more frequent among this population, too, especially as Internet-savvy folks start to age.
Before we get into how to prevent these scams, let’s discuss how and why seniors get scammed as well as how frequently it happens.
Seniors Getting Scammed, By the Numbers
Scammers do not discriminate when it comes to who they try and get money out of: rich, poor, black, white, 65 and healthy, 85 and ailing. They’ll try to take money from anyone.
The American Journal of Public Health estimates that about 5 percent of the elderly population (which equates to around two to three million people) suffer from some sort of scam every year. “What’s worse, it’s very likely an underestimate,” said David Brune, a professor at the University of Toronto. This is most likely because it’s expected that a large percentage of Internet scams go unreported.
Scamming the elderly is a multi-billion dollar business for people around the U.S. that drains the elderly of their retirement funds and government benefits. The Orlando Sentinel (using a Department of Justice report) points out that elderly people lose roughly $3 billion to scammers every year.
Less conservative estimates project that seniors lose up to $36 billion every year. The Sentinel also reported (based on Federal Trade Commission report) that the median amount that someone over 80 lost was over $1,000 and the median amount someone between 70 and 79 lost was over $600.
Why These Scams Happen
Far too many elderly people fall victim to scams, but it’s not their fault. This population is largely trustworthy and made up of financially fruitful people whose cognition may have decreased due to varying ailments. Let’s dig into the characteristics and reasons why elderly people become vulnerable to scammers.
- Isolation: Loneliness can eat away at many facets of a senior’s life, including making them become extremely susceptible to scams. First off, when they are isolated, there isn’t anyone to provide a check-in on their finances. It may be far too late to do anything if a loved one finds out about it years later. Isolated elderly people also may be more vulnerable to social interaction, which can set them up for an eager scammer who uses a “relationship” to start their scheme.
- Financial Status: An elderly person’s financial situation is a major reason why they become targets for scams. On one side, an elderly person could have millions of dollars at hand after saving for retirement and getting monthly pension checks and government benefits. This may make the person a little less strict with their money, which in turn makes an email or message from a “grandson” requesting money a no-brainer. On the other hand, a senior could be financially insecure and in need of a get-rich-quick source of income, making a pyramid scheme appealing without knowing that they’ll never get their money back.
- Trusting: The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) says that people who grew up in the 1920s, ‘30s, and ‘40s—a.k.a. those frequently targeted for scams—are generally more trusting than other generations, which makes them susceptible to con artists.
- Insecure: Sometimes, the elderly simply get bullied into handing over money to scammers. Whether in-person or over the phone, a scammer could relentlessly press an elderly person for money until they break. Additionally, a scammer may target an elderly person’s own insecurities like their health or social status, saying that they need to pay a certain medical bill or else they will no longer be able to receive government-funded health insurance.
- Lowered Cognition/Age: As we age, we are more likely to have some sort of cognitive brain condition like dementia, which affects memory and overall cognitive function. These cognitive conditions can affect your memory in myriad ways, including who your family is and how much money you have—and what’s real or fake. Scammers will attack these weaknesses. For instance, a scammer can call someone in their 80s pretending to be their grandchild. The elderly person may remember they have a grandchild, but they may not remember their actual names or what they sound like, so they’ll go along with whatever the scammer is saying.
- Embarrassment: The elderly can simply get embarrassed about being scammed, leading them to not report it to the authorities. This makes them attractive targets because scammers know there’s a high possibility they won’t get caught for trying (or succeeding) to dupe someone. On top of that, many elderly people have no idea where to report scams to, which is sadly all the better for scammers.
Aside from why seniors may be targeted, these scams come in various forms that take advantage of their vulnerabilities.
Types of Internet Scams that Target Seniors
Scammers can attack in a variety of ways. They’re all generally done to try to get some sort of personal information out of you, whether it’s your social security number, Medicare information, retirement accounts, email accounts, or credit card information. They often appear as pop-ups and advertisements on websites, and within email campaigns.
When they happen via pop-up ads, fake websites, and emails, it’s known as phishing. Phishing is defined by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) as “when a scammer uses fraudulent emails or texts, or copycat websites to get you to share valuable personal information – such as account numbers, Social Security numbers, or your login IDs and passwords.” Many of the situations we will describe next can fall under the phishing tree.
These scams take shape and are advertised in different ways, though, so let’s dig into some:
- Malware: One of the FTC’s primary examples of phishing happens when someone sends you an email containing malware. (The email will most likely ask you to download something, or the malware will download automatically when you open the email. If this happens, delete it immediately.) Whatever you download could damage your computer or install ransomware that allows hackers to search through everything on your computer, such as tax files, retirement account and bank account information, and more.
- Winning Sweepstakes/Lottery: Internet scams can be disguised as winning entrees for a sweepstakes or lottery. Bright, loud advertisements may pop up on screen saying you’ve won a certain amount of money or product for helping the website hit a milestone or because you were a random lucky winner. This is part of a scheme to get you to share personal information, like bank account numbers or your credit card, to “wire” you the money. They may also say you’ll get mailed a check or package, and “all you have to do” is put in your credit card information to take care of a small shipping and handling fee. A good tip to remember on the Internet is that nothing is ever free.
- Counterfeit Prescription Drugs: You may receive advertisements or emails letting you know about prescription drugs that work just as well and are cheaper than they ones you’re paying for now. These are, largely, fake. These drugs may not even be real, and the people behind them are just trying to get your insurance information or credit card number. Or, the drugs may be counterfeit, essentially acting as placebos. This is obviously severely dangerous to your health and potentially fatal. Elderly people consume about one-third of all the prescription drugs in the U.S., despite making up less than 15 percent of the population, and scammers take aim at this need for cheaper prescriptions.
- Fake Anti-aging Products: There’s no shame in trying to look and feel younger. The unfortunate part, though, is scammers use this as an opportunity to get money out of the elderly. Advertisements for fake Botox, creams, and other anti-aging products pop up and some folks will bite. This is another scam that can be sent through email. This can be dangerous, especially for anti-aging products that you need to inject to take. First of all, the products may not even be real, so you’re paying for something you won’t actually receive. Secondly, you may be paying for a product that, once it shows up, could harm you.
- Sweetheart Scams: This is exactly like the scam detailed at the beginning of this article. You meet someone online, fall in love before you ever meet in person (though the relationship could lead to meeting in-person), and they start to ask for money to help solve debt problems. This is especially bad for those who could be isolated from other family members looking for companionship, and it also takes aim at those who may have recently lost a spouse and are in need of personal contact.
- Fake Credit Card Advances: You may run into scams on the Internet that deal with credit card cash advances. Here’s how it works: a “credit card company” (scammers will put a reputable company’s name on the ad like Visa or Mastercard) will offer you a credit card with a pre-approved limit, usually in the thousands. The catch is that you have to pay upfront for the credit card’s “annual fee,” which is where the scammers make their money. You’ll most likely have to enter your social security information and bank information in this process, which is a complete scam. It makes no sense for a credit card company to give you a massive spending limit without knowing your credit score. If you detect something is a scam, contact the company directly with a phone call to see if the offer is real.
- Employment Scams: Some elderly people may not want to stop working as they age. The baby boomer generation, who are working more than any aging generation before them, is looking for work past the retirement age for health insurance, retirement funds, and extra income. Scammers take advantage of this by offering job listings that aren’t real. They use it for you to submit an application with your social security number and other personal information. They can also actually be offering a job that promises insurance and commission, but you can get hired and work for months before learning the entire thing is a scam. (These jobs often appear as sales and telecommunications jobs.)
- Free Vacation: Scammers may use a “free vacation” to get money and information from you. The “vacation” is advertised as a great deal to a popular destination, but the property advertised may not be owned by the person advertising it or it may not even exist. The ad will then ask you to place a down payment for the deal, which often has a short time limit. When it’s time to arrive at the destination, you may come to find the property doesn’t look as advertised or it may not even be where it’s supposed to be. The deal, which probably at first glance was too good to be true, was never real to begin with. For this specific type of scam, the Better Business Bureau encourages you to read reviews of the property before booking and, if you do end up paying, use a credit card, so you can potentially dispute the charges if you act quick enough.
How Elderly People Can Avoid Getting Scammed
If feel that you or a loved one has been or is susceptible to being approached by one of these scams, there are tips you can follow and steps you can take to help prevent these scams affecting your financial situation.
First, let’s take a look at what elderly people can do:
- If a deal on a vacation, prescription drug, or something else seems too good to be true, it probably is. Perform more research on the company providing the deal.
- If someone is trying to sell something to you or get more information out of you, ask for more information about who they represent. If they refuse, walk away.
- Consult family members and caregivers about potential purchases before going through with it. Never give away information on an impulse unless you’re wholly positive it’s to a trusted source (like a doctor or company you’ve done business with before).
- Avoid answering emails and ads from unfamiliar sources.
- The government will not notify you of a late bill or owed payment over an ad on a website.
- The FBI suggests you contact your doctor before committing to any health procedure or treatment that you aren’t using your insurance for.
Now, if you are a loved one or caregiver, there are steps you can take to make sure that the elderly person in your life won’t get duped by an Internet scam:
- Keep loved ones informed on ways they could be scammed on the Internet, like through emails and pop-up ads.
Check in on your loved one’s bank accounts and retirement accounts often with an eye for odd purchases or withdrawals.
- Visit them to discuss their monthly bills and prescriptions. They may mention a “new” bill or a “cheaper” way to get the prescriptions they need in passing, so follow up any of those.
- If a loved one discusses an upcoming vacation or a good deal they obtained, ask for more information about how they got the deal. Check to see if it’s valid.
- Make sure your loved ones know not to make any impulse buys on the Internet, especially if the “deal” is ending in the next few minutes.
How to Report Scams
One of the most important steps in the scam prevention process is making sure the scammers get caught. Reporting scams to the proper authorities is vital, yet more than 80 percent of online scams go unreported. This is due in part to people not knowing where they can report Internet scams to.
Here’s who will receive and potentially act on reports of scams that you share:
- Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI): The FBI deals with blue- and white-collar crimes, so they’ll look into crimes like scams over the Internet, especially if money is involved.
- Federal Trade Commission (FTC): The FTC deals with telemarketing and phishing scams. These telemarketers may actually first get in contact through phishing scams by disguising themselves as being a part of a tech company or service offering vacation deals.
- Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC): If you’ve “invested” in an opportunity that you later feel is a scam, report it to the SEC.
- Social Security Administration(SSA): The SSA is a great place to report potential scams to when it involves your social security number or funds. Once you flag your social security number, the SSA will review any activity involving your SSN.
- Better Business Bureau (BBB): if you feel a business is scamming you online, report it to the Better Business Bureau. There is a map on their website that identifies businesses all over the country that have tried to scam people in-person and on the web.
- Your Bank/Retirement Facility: Scams with the elderly often involve money coming from your bank or retirement accounts. As soon as you find out or realize that you’ve been scammed, you should notify whoever deals with your money. There may still be a chance to get your money back, or it may not have even left your account yet.
If you aren’t sure where exactly to report a scam to, contact local officials. You can file a police report if you are scammed to help ensure there’s evidence and a timeline of the scam. However, do not report this to 9-1-1. Instead, call your local police department’s non-emergency number. You can also delve into the websites of the aforementioned agencies to see which place best fits the type of scam you encountered.
“About 5 percent of the elderly population (which equates to around two to three million people) suffer from some sort of scam every year.”