According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, senior citizens are particularly vulnerable to certain types of scams and fraud. Scammers prey on the elderly for a variety of reasons.

What Are Common Scams That Target Seniors?

Seniors Have Money

According to a 2017 Federal Reserve study, the average net worth for American households headed by someone age 65 and older is $1.067 million — 1.5 times as high as the average for all households.

However, while many older adults are wealthy, many others are poor. A 2018 Kaiser Family Foundation report calculates that 14% of all seniors are living in poverty. Scams that target the elderly take in many people living on fixed incomes who can’t afford the financial loss.

They’re More Trusting

Rich or poor, senior citizens are often lonely. Many are empty nesters whose kids have grown up and moved out. The older these senior citizens get, the more likely they are to become isolated as their friends die or move into nursing homes.

This loneliness makes them prime targets for telephone scammers. They’re often happy to get a call and willing to listen to whatever the person has to say. When older people have no close connections, it’s easier for con artists to form a bond with them and gain their trust.

Also, older people are often more inclined to trust strangers to begin with. People who grew up before 1960 were often raised to be polite and to assume other people are honest. This makes them less willing to interrupt a sales pitch or hang up on a scammer.

They Often Have Memory Problems

According to a 2018 report from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), senior citizens are actually more likely to report scams than younger people. However, con artists know that even if their elderly victims report the crime, there’s a good chance they won’t remember the details.

Because memory and cognitive function often decline with age, older victims are likely to have trouble providing investigators with the details they need to find the criminals. Adding to the problem, many people don’t figure out they’ve been conned until weeks or months after the crime took place. By that point, their memories are even hazier.
Some scams specifically target seniors who are known to suffer from memory loss. For instance, True Link Financial outlines a scam in which victims receive three free issues of a popular magazine, followed by a bill for the “subscription” they never requested.

Another scam involves calling up seniors to request donations to real charities — except the fraudsters call several times over the course of one day, counting on the victim to forget about the earlier calls. They then pass on 10% of the money collected to the charity and pocket the rest.

They Often Have Other Health Problems

Many health scams focus on seniors because they’re more likely to suffer from specific health problems. This makes them prime targets for fake remedies that promise to do a variety of things, such as:

  • Treat or prevent cancer
  • Treat arthritis
  • Improve cognitive function
  • Improve sexual function
  • Reverse visible signs of aging
  • Improve overall physical condition

Older adults are also vulnerable to scams that center on other needs they have. These include scams related to Social Security or Medicare, fake investments to provide income in retirement, and cons that prey on the recently widowed.

Some of the most common senior scams include:

  • Charity scams
  • Funeral scams
  • Government imposter scams
  • Grandparent scams
  • Internet scams
  • Investment scams
  • Medicare scams
  • Reverse mortgage scams
  • Romance scams
  • Sweepstakes scams

How to Avoid Senior Scams

Your best defense is to be aware of scams and how they work so you can be on your guard against them. Here are some general tips that can protect you from all types of scams, including the ones aimed at seniors.

Be Suspicious

Whenever someone contacts you out of the blue, whether by mail, email, or phone, be wary. Take the time to check out the business, charity, or whatever it is before trusting it with any of your money. This goes double for anything that looks like an unbeatable deal. If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.

Don’t Trust Phone Numbers

If your caller ID tells you a phone call is coming from a trusted business or organization, such as the IRS, don’t assume it’s true. Nowadays, it’s extremely easy for scammers to spoof a real company’s phone number.

Protect Your Personal Information

Never give out any personal or financial information to someone who calls or emails you. This includes your SSN, Medicare number, banking information, and credit card numbers. Provide this info only when you initiated the call yourself to a business you know is legitimate.

Read the Fine Print

Never respond to any offer without knowing all the details. Read all contracts and sales agreements carefully, including the fine print. This includes purchases you make online or from a TV ad.

Do Your Homework

Before agreeing to do business with any new company — including sales providers, investments, and charities — do some due diligence. Ask for the salesperson’s name, the name of the business, its contact info, and its license number. Then, take the time to review the company’s website and check its ratings with the Better Business Bureau.

Take Your Time

Never make a financial decision under pressure. If a marketer tries to push you into spending or investing money before you’ve had time to do your research, hang up on them.

Talk It Over

Before making a large investment, talk it over with someone you trust. If you don’t have a financial advisor, run the investment by a trusted friend or family member to see if it sounds reasonable.

Don’t Pay to Play

Don’t pay in advance for any service, such as home repairs. You have no guarantee they’ll actually be provided. Never pay a fee to collect a prize that’s supposed to be free. Any sweepstakes or lottery that charges a fee to collect your winnings is guaranteed to be a scam.

Use Traceable Payments

Automatically be suspicious of any business or organization that requests payment in an untraceable form, such as a wire transfer, gift card, or cash in an envelope. Stick to traceable forms of payment, such as credit cards and payment apps.

Report Scams

If you or a loved one has been the victim of a scam, report it. Contact your local police department to file a report, and file a complaint with the FTC. You can also notify the FBI about the scam through the FBI tips website. Even if it’s too late to recover your money, you can still protect others from the same kind of fraud.

How to Protect Older Relatives

Protecting yourself against senior scams is one thing, but protecting your older relatives is quite a bit harder. Monitoring all your aged parents’ mail, emails, and phone calls to screen out scams is awkward enough if you live with them and virtually impossible if you don’t.

Of course, you can always lecture your relatives after the fact if they get scammed, or even threaten to take over their finances if they aren’t more careful. But according to AARP, this strategy is likely to backfire. If you make them feel ashamed or scared of losing their independence, they’re less likely to admit it if they fall for another scam in the future. That makes it even harder for you to protect them.
Instead, AARP recommends the following approaches:

Stay Informed

Talk to your relatives regularly about what kind of mail and phone calls they get. If you hear about lots of calls or messages that are obvious scams, it could be a sign they’re on a sucker list. They — or you — will have to be extra vigilant about guarding against fraud.

Unlist Their Phone Number

Help your parents unlist their home phone number so scammers can’t get it as easily. Also, take steps to reduce robocalls, such as using a call-blocking registry or app.

Cut out Junk Mail

Another way to reduce your relatives’ exposure to scams is to help them get less junk mail. For a small fee, they can register with DMAchoice to block direct mail from legitimate vendors. That way, they’ll know any sales pitches that still make it into their mailboxes are likely to be scams.

Check Credit Reports

If you can’t persuade your relatives to check their annual credit reports, check them yourself on their behalf. It will enable you to spot any new, fake accounts opened in their names and close them before too much damage is done.

Explain the Scam

If your relative tells you about an offer that sounds like a scam, don’t say, “That’s a scam” and tell them to hang up the phone or toss the letter. Instead, explain to them how you can tell. For instance, you could point out you can’t win a contest you never entered, or that government agencies don’t need to ask for your SSN because they already have it on file. Information like this helps arm your relatives against future scams.

Use Reverse Psychology

If you see a parent putting money into something that seems like a scam, such as a “guaranteed” high-yield investment, try asking how you can get in on the action too. According to psychologists, parents who are willing to put their own money at risk sometimes become more wary when they see a child doing the same. If they warn you off the investment, you can ask why they’re willing to risk their money on it. Talking it through with you can help them recognize the investment as a scam.

Don’t Blame the Victim

If a relative has become the victim of a scam, don’t put the blame on them or make them feel stupid. Instead, put the focus on avoiding these scams in the future.

Help Them Help Others

If parents are unwilling to share the details of a scam they’ve fallen for, explain how their experience could help stop the scammers from victimizing others. By telling them their story could be the key to catching the scammer or stopping them from striking again, you can make them feel like heroes instead of hapless victims.

Monitor Accounts

If your parents have fallen prey to senior scams in the past, consider asking for online access to their bank and credit card accounts. It will allow you to keep an eye on them and spot any unusual or suspicious activity.


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