Scammers are targeting everyone and seem to zero in particularly on seniors. In fact, the American Journal of Public Health estimates that nearly 5% of older adults fall prey to some type of scam every year – that equates to approximately 2 to 3 million scamming incidents against seniors alone. And, unfortunately, these figures are likely an understatement of the true number of scams, as some victims neglect to file a report.

Because these occurrences are becoming more common, it’s more important than ever to do your due diligence before handing over money, personal information or financial details to anyone who requests it. Whether you want to defend yourself against scammers or you have aging or vulnerable family members you want to protect, here are insights you can use to identify a scam and avoid becoming a victim.

Four common senior scams

To start, it’s necessary to become familiar with the top scams that affect the aging population. Once you can identify a potential scam, you can further investigate the situation or avoid it altogether. Here are four of the most common scams that target seniors.

1. Scam phone calls

If you receive a phone call claiming that you must pay the IRS or some other institution immediately or via wire transfer, red flags should go up – even if you get the call in the middle of tax season. The IRS will never demand immediate payment over the phone requiring a specific payment method, threaten to immediately bring in the police or ask for credit or debit card numbers over the phone.

Similarly, be wary of unexpected phone calls from your “granddaughter” or “nephew” who is in a difficult situation and in need of your money or personal information promptly. These scams take advantage of the relationships between elders and trusted institutions or their families to gain access to valuable assets. They often try to disguise their voice through a “bad connection” or illness. Always hang up and call your family member(s) directly through a phone number you already know to find out if they are okay.

Today’s scammers are tech-savvy and are able to spoof caller ID.

2. Fraudulent direct mail campaigns

Mail fraud occurs when a scammer attempts to get money or something of value from someone else via direct mail solicitation. Aging adults may be at a higher risk for this kind of scam, as they are more likely to have a history of donating to their church or favorite causes via live checks sent in the mail. Examples of mail fraud could include campaigns that request money for a political candidate, social causes that align with the target’s beliefs, religious donations to a church or mission group, or even your local police or fire departments.

3. Bold, in-person visitors asking for money

In some cases, scammers may show up at your doorstep offering services like home repairs or yard work. Then, these individuals will con you out of the services by not performing the work properly. In more severe cases, the scammer may request that you fill out and sign a document in exchange for the services. Later, you may find that you’ve unknowingly signed over valuable assets in the paperwork.

Many cities require door-to-door solicitors to obtain a permit prior to canvassing homes. Always ask for credentials, verify their business history and check reviews or referrals before signing any agreements or providing payment.

4. Email and phishing scams

As the population becomes more and more tech-savvy, scammers are turning to the internet to prey on the senior population. Seemingly valid emails, virtual assistants and websites may ask you to provide passwords or to log in to a portal to access your documents or pay your bills. Then, disguised scammers steal your sensitive information – including passwords, credit card and banking information, and more.

Never open email attachments or click on links from unknown or suspicious senders. Also, make sure your computer is up-to-date and protected against cyber attacks.

Five signs someone is scamming you

When it comes to scammers, it’s essential to be proactive. Becoming familiar with popular scams and the signs that someone is scamming you will help you sniff out any signs of danger before you, too, fall victim. Be sure to prepare yourself by taking note of these tell-tale scamming signals:

  1. You haven’t hired help for anything and have never heard of the individual contacting you, but they’re demanding or asking for money.
  2. Someone is claiming to be from a bank, the government or another institution that usually contacts you in a different way.
  3. The individual contacting you can’t verify their identity or they get frustrated when you don’t believe who they say they are. A real representative would understand that you are being cautious and provide accurate verification.
  4. They “friend” you on Facebook, dating sites or other online networking pages. The individual then sends personal messages or requests even though you don’t know them well. If this happens, follow the typical protocol that you would for an in-person friend. In general, don’t offer money, resources, or access to your accounts to new friends or acquaintances.
  5. Someone has escalating demands, such as asking for $500 after you’ve already given them $100. Or, they have a series of unbelievable hardships, like their car getting stolen after they have had medical problems or lost their job. Fraudulent people often layer lies on top of lies to create a more desperate situation, but it’s not your responsibility to provide relief.

Three ways to ward off a potential scammer

Although scammers use smart tactics to exploit their victims, it’s important that you learn to protect yourself. Individuals must take steps to equip themselves with anti-scam strategies.

1. Use the buddy system

If you need an extra confidence boost, set up a phone-a-friend system with a trustworthy confidant. This person will act as your check-in should you find yourself in a sticky situation. Their second judgment will help provide you with clarity in potentially confusing or dangerous scams.

2. Google it

Next, you can use the internet to your advantage. When presented information or requests from an unfamiliar company, try googling the name of the organization plus “scam” or “fraud.” If any results come up, avoid contact and block further interactions. Websites like Snopes.com can also provide answers.

3. Verify their identity

Finally, you can always ask for further verification. Request that the individual verifies their identity in some way or sends you the information via snail mail. This will delay and frustrate fraudsters who are hoping to make money today. And, if the individual claims to be a representative from your bank, lender or retirement account, say that you will hang up and visit them in person. Face-to-face interactions at your legitimate bank will provide ultimate verification.

You may also hang up and call back the company (via a published phone number) or individual that called you to ensure that the call is real. If the person on the other end of the line balks against this, it’s a good sign that they aren’t who they claim to be – and that they are calling from a randomized number. Don’t trust your caller ID or the caller’s provided phone number. Call back to a number you are familiar with or look up a business number and call back to that published contact.

Fight fraud together

Fraud against seniors is a serious concern, but you don’t have to combat this injustice alone. By identifying scammers and using the suggested tactics to protect yourself, you’ll be able to keep your assets and sensitive information secure.

And remember, if you think you’ve been the victim of a financial crime, be sure to reach out to your local police department immediately. Record notes from the interaction, including any phone numbers used or a physical description of an in-person scammer. The more information you’re able to share with law enforcement, the more likely they are to catch the scammer before they prey on someone else.


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