Seniors are frequent targets for unscrupulous “scam artists.” Scammers know that older people are likely to be more trusting and gracious than younger adults, and they are more likely to have assets like cash savings, real estate or good credit. In 2019, the Special Committee on Aging of the U.S. Senate estimated that American seniors lose $2.9 billion each year to financial scams. Many of these scam operations are run by criminals operating from foreign call centers, beyond the enforcement powers of American law enforcement and immune to prosecution.
Nationwide, millions of our seniors are victimized each year by schemes involving lottery winnings, fake tax-due notices, fake tax return filings, bills for services never performed, and an endless range of other ways to cheat honest people. Not all of these schemes are aimed at wealthy or well-to-do seniors; scammers will gladly cheat any victim they can. Because they are often beyond the reach of American law enforcement, these crooks regard scamming as a “low-risk” crime, not likely to bring punishment.
The 2019 Senate Committee report identified several of the most common types of senior fraud. Briefly, some of the common ones are:
- Internal Revenue Service Impersonations—these scams involve telephone calls from people claiming to be IRS agents. Often, they use “spoofed” phone numbers, falsely indicating that the call originates in the United States, especially in area code 202 (Washington D.C.) The caller demands payment of back taxes and attempts to scare the victim with threats of bank account seizures or even prosecution. In fact, the IRS does not phone taxpayers unless they have tried and failed to contact them by mail, so beware of any call claiming to be from the IRS.
- Robocall Scams—these involve scammers using automated systems to make thousands of calls to random individuals. The automated system then asks for personal information like addresses, Social Security numbers and other identity information. This data can be used in a number of identity-theft schemes like fake credit card accounts or even filing false tax returns. Do not give out personal information in response to an incoming call. If you receive an incoming call claiming to be from a business or government department, do not provide personal information. Hang up and call the phone number on your account statement, the phonebook, or the appropriate website to find out if the call is legitimate.
- Sweepstakes Scams—these are calls informing you that you have won some drawing, sweepstakes or contest you never entered. They will often ask for personal information or some deposit to hold your winnings.
- Romance Scams—more and more people, including seniors, are turning to the internet for dating. The Pew Research organization reports that 12 percent of Americans aged 55- to 64-years reported using an online dating site. Scammers use these sites, often claiming to want to meet the victim, but needing money to travel. When the money is sent, they just disappear. Be very skeptical of any internet contact who wants financial help.
- Elder Financial Abuse—seniors are sometimes exposed to financial exploitation because their decision-making ability may decrease with age. The perpetrators may be care workers, professional practitioners or even family members who have gained access to the senior’s assets and misused them. The best way to avoid this is to plan ahead and secure trusted legal, tax and financial advice. Please see the OurSeniors.net Senior Transition Pro Team for valuable references.
- The Grandparent Scam—this scam deliberately targets seniors. Imposters claim the grandchild is in trouble and needs money for an emergency. The scammers ask the victim to wire the money to them to pay for a hospital bill, legal fine or some other false purpose. The scammer then simply disappears.
- Identity Theft—this scam was mentioned above in the discussion of automated robocalls that gather personal information. Identity theft can also stem from internet activity that exchanges personal data, theft of mail, “insider” theft of data, computer hack attacks and other sources. This can result in unauthorized credit card charges, damaged credit reports, fraudulent billings to Medicare or Medicaid, fake Social Security benefit applications or tax fraud.
If you believe that you are the victim of identity theft, call the companies involved, place a fraud alert with a credit reporting agency, get an updated credit report and report it to your local police department. Close any new accounts opened with the stolen data, correct your credit reports and consider asking those agencies for a temporary freeze on new credit applications.
In all of your personal, internet, telephone and other interactions, be aware of the warning signs of possible frauds. Scammers try to get personal information like your Social Security or other account numbers. They sometimes pretend to be a government agency, such as the IRS. Scammers disguise their real phone numbers, using fake caller IDs and they try to get you to make fast decisions. Before giving out personal or credit information, ask a friend or knowledgeable person about the matter. Do not be rushed into any decision.