It’s a sad fact that scammers often target the people with the most to lose, and the least chance to catch on or fix things.
Seniors may have strong credit and a large nest egg for scam artists to go after. They also may be more trusting or less likely to report scams if they fear friends and family will think they can’t manage their own affairs anymore.
“People who grew up in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s were generally raised to be polite and trusting,” says the FBI. “Con artists exploit these traits, knowing that it is difficult or impossible for these individuals to say ‘no’ or just hang up the telephone.”
Criminals defraud or steal an estimated $3 billion from seniors every year, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
Here are some major, ongoing scams to watch out for:
1. Counterfeit drug scams
Seniors often turn to the internet to find drugs that are more affordable, especially with specialized medications, says the National Council on Aging. As a result, they are commonly scammed online.
Fake drugs masquerading as legitimate medicines may worsen your health conditions, the FBI warns.
These drugs may look real but may be contaminated, expired or otherwise unsafe, the FDA says.
For legitimate deals online, seek pharmacies that require a valid prescription from a doctor or another licensed health-care professional, are licensed by your state pharmacy board, and have a U.S. state-licensed pharmacist available to answer questions, the FDA says.
Rogue sites may display a Canadian flag while being operated by criminals elsewhere. Another risk: Fake online pharmacies may misuse any personal information you provide, infect your computer with viruses or sell your personal information to other rogue operators.
2. Telemarketing scams
You don’t have to be a senior to fall prey to a voice on the phone urging you to “act now or miss out on a great deal.” Still, many seniors do become victims.
Seniors as a group make twice as many purchases over the phone as the national average, says the National Council on Aging.
If you hear a caller say these things or make similar claims, the FBI says to just say, “No, thank you,” and hang up:
- You’ve won a “free” gift, vacation, or prize but must pay “postage and handling” or other charges.
- You must send money, give a credit card or bank account number, or have a check picked up by courier before you can review the offer carefully.
- The caller resists providing references or letting you review the offer with your family, lawyer, accountant, Better Business Bureau or consumer protection agency.
You can wait and consider an offer. And, pay only after services are delivered — never pay in advance.
The Council on Aging warns of these other scams:
- Con artists who say they found money and will split it with you if you drop off a good-faith payment (often by withdrawing funds from your bank account).
- Solicitors claiming to raise money for charity (especially after a natural disaster). A tip: Ask what percentage of the money raised goes to commissions and how much goes to the charity.
3. Anti-aging product scams
Some scams take advantage of seniors who may feel the need to conceal their age at work and in social circles, the Council on Aging says.
Many seek treatments and medications to maintain a youthful appearance. Whether they offer fake Botox or bogus homeopathic remedies, scammers profit in the anti-aging business, the council says.
Renegade labs creating versions of Botox may work with the root ingredient, botulism neurotoxin, one of the most toxic substances known to science, the council says. A bad batch can have serious health consequences.
Counterfeit “anti-aging” products may contain arsenic, beryllium, and cadmium — all known carcinogens — along with high levels of aluminum and dangerous levels of bacteria, the FBI warns. Products may cause eye infections, acne, rashes and psoriasis.
Ask lots of questions about any offer of products, the bureau advises. Be dubious of “secret formulas,” “breakthroughs,” celebrity endorsements, or item can purportedly can cure a wide variety of unrelated conditions.
4. Funeral and cemetery scams
Seniors may encounter scammers even at funeral homes and memorial services, says the National Council on Aging.
Some crooks read obituaries to find and approach grieving widows or widowers at funeral services. Claiming the deceased owes them money, scammers try to extort money to settle the fake debts.
Also, disreputable funeral homes may rely on seniors’ unfamiliarity with the cost of funeral services, adding charges to the bill and insisting on an expensive casket, even for a direct cremation that can be done with an inexpensive cardboard casket.
Since consumer protections vary from state to state, the FBI warns, unscrupulous operators sometimes try getting away with overcharging for expenses and even listing themselves as financial beneficiaries.
Take along a trusted friend when visiting a funeral home. Make sure you understand what basic fees cover and what services are additional. Shop around. Don’t feel pressured to buy, sign a contract or commit.
5. Real estate scams
Scammers like to target elderly homeowners, the aging council says.
In one scam, San Diego fraudsters sent property owners personalized letters disguised as official County Assessor’s Office business. They found the properties’ assessed values in public records and offered the homeowners (for a price) to help get a property value reassessment to lower property taxes.
Reverse mortgage borrowers are another favorite target of scammers. Con artists hawking home repair and remodeling or fraudulent investments urge seniors to apply for reverse mortgages in order to pay for the products and services they are selling. The FBI adds that scammers also may urge homeowners to obtain a reverse mortgage to buy a lower-cost home that is, in fact, a distressed property.
You may encounter thieves in real estate, financial services or other financial companies. Hoping to get their hands on seniors’ home equity, they “help” homeowners obtain a HECM (Home Equity Conversion Mortgage), diverting some or all of the money to themselves. The FBI cautions to watch out for offers of free homes, home flips, help with refinancing, investments, foreclosure or refinancing “opportunities.” These scammers prey on seniors at church, in “investment seminars” and on TV, radio, billboards and mailers particularly.
One Los Angeles con man swindled $17 million from elderly homeowners already in financial straits. He had them sign “deeds” to protect their property or get equity from it, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Central District of California says. Actually, the documents pledged their homes as collateral for fake loans. The swindler used the fraudulent deeds to steal homes and money, leaving elderly victims penniless and even homeless. Homeowners who were financially stressed, some of whom spoke limited English, were vulnerable targets, the AG’s office says.
6. Social Security scams
Some 35,000 people reported losing a total of $10 million to Social Security phone scams in 2018, according to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). And remember, those are just the people who realized they had been defrauded and reported it to the federal government.
A typical Social Security scam goes like this:
- You get a phone call that appears to be from the real phone number for the Social Security Administration (1-800-772-1213).
- A voice tells you that your Social Security number has been suspended because of suspicious or criminal activity.
- The voice asks you to confirm your Social Security number.
- The caller warns that your bank account will be seized, and suggests you move money onto gift cards and share the numbers and PINs for those.
The call is not really from the SSA. Someone just made it appear as if the call were coming from the agency’s number — a practice known as “spoofing.”
The caller probably won’t know your Social Security number until you tell them. Your bank account isn’t going to be seized, and your money is safer in the bank than on gift cards, in cash or wired to anywhere else.
Know this: The Social Security Administration does not make calls to threaten taking your benefits or to suggest you move money.
Never give your Social Security number, bank information or credit card number to anyone who contacts you unexpectedly.
If you have doubts, go to SSA.gov. Click on “Contact Us” (bottom of the page) and contact the agency yourself.
To report any scam, contact the FTC’s Complaint Assistant website.
7. Medicare card scams
Recently, the federal government replaced old Medicare cards and Medicare identification numbers. The new ones do not reflect seniors’ Social Security numbers, as we explain in “What You Must Know About the New Medicare Card You Will Get Soon.”
The change is to thwart scammers. Ironically, though, it gave scammers a new opportunity.
In this scam, a purported “Medicare representative” calls to get you to “verify” your Medicare number — new or old — and to send you a new card, for a fee.
As we explain in “How to Avoid Scams That Target Your New Medicare Card,” both old and new Medicare numbers can be used for identity theft.
If you don’t recognize a caller’s number, don’t pick up.
If you are suspicious of a caller, just hang up.
Don’t reveal your new or old Medicare number to a caller. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which administers the program, won’t call you unsolicited, points out the Better Business Bureau. If the agency needs to contact you, it will send a letter. And the new Medicare cards are free.
8. Vacation rental scams
This scam is another one the FTC has been warning about in recent years: imitation vacation rental listings.
Scammers might steal actual listings and simply change the contact information, assuming the identity of the real lister. Or they might invent property listings of their own, then advertise unbelievably low rates and try to convince travelers they’ve found a hidden deal.
Be suspicious of listings well below the going rate, and always look up the address on a map — preferably a map with a street view of the property that you can compare with any listing photos.
Don’t let anyone rush you into paying, or convince you to use a payment method with inadequate protections, such as a gift card or wire transfer. And stick to well-known, reputable vacation rental websites like Homestay and Vrbo.
9. Computer security scams
While anybody can fall victim to this type of scam, the FTC has warned of organized tech support scams targeting seniors in recent years.
A typical scenario involves a telemarketing call from someone claiming to be from an established technology company — usually a household name, even if they’re not necessarily known for computer security specifically.
The caller will warn that hackers are likely to break into your computer and rob your bank account, and the caller offers a victim the sale and installation of security software.
Once a victim agrees, the caller will give instructions that allow the scammer to remotely connect to the victim’s computer, supposedly to install that security software. But while the scammer is doing that, they help themselves to personal information. They may even create new “security threats” on your computer so they can call back later and offer to “fix” them for an additional fee.
The advice here is to ignore unsolicited offers to help beef up your computer security, especially if they involve letting someone remotely access your computer.
If you aren’t confident that your computer is safe, find a reputable service company where you can get face-to-face assistance and ask questions about what software you should install and safety procedures you should follow.
10. Grandparent scams
The FTC reported a “striking increase” in the typical amount of money lost to this type of scam in 2018. People age 70 or older who were conned into sending cash reported losing an average of $9,000 per person.
This type of scam usually starts with a phone call from someone pretending to be a grandchild of the victim who is in need of cash due to legal trouble.
The caller might offer an embarrassing sob story about being caught drinking while driving — literally sobbing, to draw attention away from the unrecognized voice of a stranger.
Then the caller pleads for help and asks the victim not to tell anyone, and to send cash in a particular way.
The scammer might cull information about the victim’s actual grandkids from social media, or wait for the confused victim to give a cue as to whom they should be impersonating.
So, one of the best strategies here is to carefully guard your privacy, leaving it to callers to identify themselves. Don’t say things like, “Is that you, Joey?”
Limit access to your social media profiles to actual friends and family, and don’t accept unexpected friend requests. That includes ones from people you know, because scammers often impersonate others’ names and photos to gain access to your social media profiles. Verify that an actual friend or relative sent the request, such as by calling the person to confirm.
If you get a call and are uncertain about the caller’s authenticity, you can simply offer to “see what you can do” and end the call. Then, try to contact the alleged victim directly to see if it was a legitimate call.
Brandon Ballenger contributed to this post.
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