8 Ways Older Adults Can Better Protect Themselves from Fraud and Identity Theft

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

If You Believe You or a Loved One Has Been a Victim

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.