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.
People in or near retirement have to be especially vigilant because wealth and age come with several risk factors.
Seniors are likely to 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 because they fear friends and family will take that as a sign 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.”
And it costs seniors $3 billion every year. That’s how much the U.S. Department of Justice estimates criminals defraud seniors of or steal from them annually.
Following are several major recent and ongoing scams to guard against.
1. Social Security scams
This phone scam has become so rampant that the U.S. Social Security Administration (SSA) announced this week that it will air public service announcements on TV and radio stations nationwide as part of a new campaign to educate the public.
This comes a few months after the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) warned that Social Security scams were “growing exponentially.”
Some 35,000 people reported losing a total of $10 million to these scams in 2018, according to the FTC. And remember, that’s just the people who both realized they had been defrauded and reported it to the federal government.
A typical version of the 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. It warns you 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 real number — a practice known as “spoofing.”
The caller likely 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.
You should know that the SSA will never call to threaten your benefits or 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 any doubts about whether the SSA is actually contacting you, you can always go to the official government website, SSA.gov. Click on “Contact Us” for a current phone number, email address or office location and directly contact the agency yourself.
Once you’re certain it was not the SSA calling you — and this goes for any of the following scams as well — you should report the call via the FTC’s Complaint Assistant website.
2. Medicare card scams
Over the past year or so, the federal government has replaced old Medicare cards and Medicare identification numbers with ones that do not reflect seniors’ Social Security numbers, as we detailed last year in “What You Must Know About the New Medicare Card You Will Get Soon.”
The goal of that change was to thwart scammers who could use your Social Security number for fraud, but ironically it created a new scam opportunity.
Variations of this scam include a purported “Medicare representative” calling to ask you to verify your Medicare number — new or old — to send you a new card for a fee.
Note that both old and new Medicare numbers can be used for identity theft, as we reported in “How to Avoid Scams That Target Your New Medicare Card.”
Medicare won’t call you unsolicited, however, and they will likely communicate by mail.
3. Vacation rental scams
This scam is another one the FTC has been warning about: 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 unbelievable rates and try to convince people 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 rental sites like Homestay or VRBO.
4. Computer security scams
While anybody can fall victim to this type of scam, the FTC has reported on recent organized tech support scams targeting seniors.
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 remotely accessing your computer.
If you aren’t confident that your computer is safe, find a reputable service where you can get face-to-face assistance and ask questions about what software you should install and safety procedures to follow.
5. 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 the victim’s grandchild and in need of cash because of 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 they plead for help and ask the victim not to tell anyone, and to send cash in a specific way, often in envelopes between pages of a magazine.
The scammer might cull information about 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 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 that way. 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.
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