Many scams are universal, from the IRS imposter who calls and threatens to arrest you if you don’t pay your taxes, to phishing emails that trick you into sending sensitive data or downloading malware onto your computer. But some types of fraud target older adults specifically or affect them disproportionately. Older adults may fall for certain scams because they are in the habit of answering calls from unknown callers, open junk mail rather than tossing it in the trash, or are not as practiced with the privacy settings on social media as younger generations.
“Older adults make great targets because they have accumulated assets over time and are living off their savings,” says Larry Santucci, who coauthored a report about elder financial victimization for the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia. “Some are also very lonely or socially isolated, which makes them susceptible to exploitation.” Moreover, cognitive decline—which hampers your ability to gauge risk or sense that something is awry—starts seeping in as early as your 50s. It may lead to diminished financial capacity, compromising your ability to handle your own money.
Here are six scams that you and your parents should watch out for.
Sweepstakes or Lottery
Photos from Getty Images.
You hear by phone, mail or online that you have won—or have the potential to win—a jackpot. But you need to pay a fee, or cover taxes and customs duties, to receive your prize, perhaps by prepaid debit card, wire transfer, money order or cash. Or, the scammer may send you a bogus check that you need to deposit before sending a portion back. Even if the contest carries a legitimate name, stay away from schemes that require you to pay to claim your prize. This was the third-most-reported scam in 2018, according to calls received by the Senate Aging Committee’s Fraud Hotline (IRS impersonation and robocalls took the top two spots).
A so-called tech support representative calls and claims that your computer is infected with a virus. Once you hand over remote access, they dig into your personal files or request payment for their services. Seek tech support only from the contact information provided with your devices. In 2018, people age 60 and older were about five times more likely to report losing money to these scams than were younger people, with a median loss of $500, according to the Federal Trade Commission.
“Grandchild” in Need
Your “grandchild” calls—perhaps in the middle of the night, startling you awake—sounding frantic, because he needs fast cash to deal with a medical emergency, a travel disaster or to get out of jail. He begs you not to alert his parents. The con artist on the other end of the line may have extracted enough details about your grandchild from the internet, such as his or her name, city and school, to weave together a believable story, and may explain away a distorted voice by claiming a bad phone connection or broken nose. “You’re pulled into an emotional trap and can only think about helping your grandchild,” says Amy Nofziger, director of fraud victim support at AARP. Hang up and call your grandchild or an in-the-know relative to check in.
You get a message on an online dating site or through social media that says something like “Don’t you remember me? I’m your second-grade crush. You look so good,” says Nofziger. The seducer may spend weeks or months building a relationship over phone and e-mail, then ask for money—perhaps to help him or her travel to you or to deal with medical issues. “These are some of the most devastating victimizations,” says Nofziger. “Some victims can lose hundreds of thousands of dollars—and the dream a scammer created for them.”
Someone claiming to be a Social Security staffer contacts you and tries to extract money or personal details. He or she may pretend there is a problem with your account, that your Social Security number has been suspended because of suspected illegal activity, or that you’re owed a cost-of-living benefit increase. Worse, the caller may threaten your benefits, suggest you’ll face legal action if you don’t provide information, or pressure you to send money. If you’re not sure whether a call is legitimate, don’t rely on your caller ID; hang up and call 800-772-1213 to speak with a real representative.
Natural Disasters and Contractors
Fake contractors will go door-to-door offering fix-it services, often capitalizing on a recent natural disaster in the area. They will ask for instant payment via cash or check, promise to start working the next day, and then disappear. Ignore their offers and search for contractors on your own.
Miriam Cross is an Associate Editor at Kiplinger's Personal Finance