According to the FBI, each year millions of elderly Americans fall victim to some type of financial fraud. Savvy criminals may use deception and misinformation to trick older victims, including impersonating a trusted individual or organization, using a fake number on caller ID, pressuring the victim to make a quick decision, or even threatening them. Learn about these common scams that target seniors as well as ways to help you or your loved ones better detect and avoid them.
What Is Elderly Financial Fraud?
Older adult financial fraud occurs when someone misuses or steals financial assets, income, or personal identifying information from an older adult, often without their knowledge or consent. Seniors may be targeted by criminals because of their financial savings and solid credit, or simply tendency of many older people to be trusting and polite. Scammers may contact their victims directly via computer, phone, mail, or indirectly through TV and radio offers.
According to the Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3), perpetrators use a variety of methods to deceive and defraud senior victims, including:
- Impersonation scams - Scammers may pose as government employees or other officials claiming that the victim owes money for a fee or penalty. IRS impersonators may contact victims by phone and use aggressive tactics such as threatening the victim with arrest, suspension of a driver’s license, or deportation. Social Security Administration imposters may tell victims that their Social Security number has been suspended because of suspicious activity or a crime and ask to confirm the number in order to steal the information.
- Robocall scams - Con artists may use robocalls to distribute prerecorded phone messages that appear to come from a bank, credit card company, creditor, or government agency. The goal is often to trick victims into revealing their account numbers, Social Security numbers, passwords, or other identifying information. These scammers may spoof caller ID to impersonate a legitimate organization or to appear as if they are calling from the victim’s home state or local area code.
- Romance scams - Some criminals pose as a romantic interest on dating websites or social media in order to take advantage of an elderly victim’s desire to find companionship. Scammers have been known to create elaborate profile pages, communicate with the victim over the course of weeks or even months to build trust, or express a desire to marry the victim. These criminals often ask the victim for money to pay for travel expenses, a so-called medical emergency, visas or other official documents, or losses from a temporary financial setback.
- Grandparent scams - During a grandparent scam, perpetrators may contact the victim pretending to be a relative—often a child or grandchild—in urgent financial need. Scammers may tell the victim that their grandchild needs money to help with an emergency, such as getting out of jail, paying a hospital bill, or leaving a foreign country.
- Tech support scams - Scammers may contact the victim and impersonate a tech support representative, often using scare tactics to trick an older adult into paying for unnecessary services to fix a bogus problem. Fraudsters may claim to be a technician from a well-known company, or they may use pop-up messages to warn about fake computer problems.
- Home improvement scams - Home improvement scammers may approach victims door-to-door, claiming they were in the neighborhood and noticed that the house needs repairs. They often ask for payment up front, and later disappear with the money, do low quality work, or claim to have discovered other problems in the house that need immediate attention at a significant cost.
- Sweepstakes, charity or lottery scams - Criminals may claim to work for a charitable organization or say their victim has won a foreign lottery or sweepstakes, which can be collected after paying a fee.
Warning Signs of Elderly Financial Fraud
According to the FBI, seniors may be less inclined to report fraud because they don’t know how to report it, they are ashamed of being a scam victim, or they fear their relatives will lose confidence in their abilities. According to the US Department of Justice, warning signs of financial exploitation of an elderly person may include:
- Changes in bank accounts or banking practices, including unexplained withdrawals
- Unexpected changes in a will or other financial document
- Unexplained disappearance of funds or other possessions
- Unpaid bills or substandard care, despite the availability of adequate financial resources
- Potentially forged signatures on financial transactions or titles
- Sudden appearance of a previously uninvolved family member claiming property or possessions
- Unexplained sudden transfer of assets to another person
- The purchase of unnecessary services
The impact of elderly financial fraud to its victims can be severe, including the loss of financial security, feelings of fear, shame, or self-doubt, reliance on government assistance programs, or even depression or hopelessness.
Steps for Older Adults to Help Better Protect Themselves from Financial Fraud
- Be cautious in sharing personal or financial information - The FBI advises individuals to never provide personal or financial information over the phone to an unverified person or organization. Instead, it is advised to hang up and call the phone number listed on the company’s account statement or the company or government agency’s official website. The IC3 advises never to give or send any personally identifiable information, money, jewelry, gift cards, checks, bank wire information, or funds to unknown or unverified persons or businesses.
- Beware of unsolicited calls, messages, mail, or home visits - Experts advise that individuals screen unknown callers using voicemail. It is also recommended not to open any unrecognized emails, attachments, or websites, and to be cautious of any unsolicited mail and door-to-door service offers.
- Consult a trusted family member or friend - The US Senate Special Committee on Aging recommends that seniors consider checking with a family member or trusted friend before giving out money or personal or financial information. If a panicked relative calls to request money, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) advises calling the individual directly via a phone number that is known to be genuine or verifying the story with another family member or friend, even if the caller wants to keep it a secret.
- Seek out verified professional services - To contract technical support services, it’s advised to find official contact details, such as information listed on the device’s original packaging or receipt. Many software companies offer tech support online or by phone, and computer stores often provide in-person support. When services are needed for home repairs or improvements, the Better Business Bureau recommends asking the contractor for references, searching for the company on the bbb.org website, and getting a written contract with the price, materials, and timeline. It’s best to avoid cash-only deals or expensive upfront payments.
- Avoid romance scams - According to the US Department of Justice, an online love interest who asks for money is most likely a scam artist. The FTC advises that individuals never send money or gifts to someone they haven’t met in person. It’s also a good idea to see if the photo is being used by more than one person by using the internet browser’s “search by image” feature. Experts recommend that individuals talk to a trusted relative or friend about any new online romantic interest.
- Search online for the individual, offer, or business - Experts advise that individuals search online using the contact information (name, email, phone number, or address) and the proposed offer. Other people often post information online about individuals or businesses that attempt to run scams.
- Beware of pop-up messages - Cybercriminals often use pop-up messages to spread malicious software. If an individual receives a pop-up message or locked screen, it’s recommended to immediately disconnect from the internet and shut down the device.
- Keep devices up-to-date - It’s recommended to keep all devices updated, including anti-virus software, firewalls, and pop-up blockers.
If you believe you or someone you know may have been a victim of elder financial fraud, the FBI advises contacting the local FBI field office and filing a complaint with the Internet Crime Complaint Center at www.ic3.gov. Suspected cases of identity theft can be reported to the FTC at Identitytheft.gov.