The Senior’s Guide to Online Financial Scams
November 14, 2019
As a senior citizen, the internet affords a number of opportunities — to stay in touch with family members, to reconnect with old friends and to learn and experience new things without leaving home.
While the internet presents a number of benefits for those 65 and older, there are also drawbacks and dangers that come with being constantly connected. With advancements in technology, the likelihood of becoming a victim of an online financial scam is increasing.
This is especially true for the elderly population, largely because this demographic is typically less informed about the online world, making them more vulnerable than other groups.
In fact, seniors are disproportionately targeted online when compared to any other demographic group — and instances of online scams aren’t always reported. According to the Senate Special Committee on Aging, one in 10 Americans ages 65 and older who live at home will fall victim to abuse, but only one in 24 cases of crude exploitation will be reported. Even if you’re not a senior citizen, you should be wary of fishy robocalls, IRS impersonators, sweepstake scams or anything else that may seem out of the ordinary online.
If you become a victim of any particular hoax, you’re susceptible to losing funds, incurring fraudulent credit card charges or having your personal information used against you. Trust your gut and don’t become a part of the billions of dollars lost annually to scams. Read on to learn more about how to recognize financial scams targeting seniors and what to do if you become a victim of one.
9 Most Common Internet or Phone Scams Targeting Seniors
A scam can come in the form of a text message, a phone call or an email, but its sole purpose is to obtain as much of your sensitive information as possible.
Although scams disproportionately target the senior population, everyone is susceptible to becoming a victim, especially if you don’t know what you’re to look out for. Below we’ve compiled ten types of scams currently affecting millions of people to give you an understanding of what each entails.
Scam #1: IRS impersonators
IRS impersonators are one of the most popular financial hoaxes. According to the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration, 2.4 million Americans and taxpayers have lost more than $72.8 million to these types of scams since 2013.
In this type of scam, you’ll be contacted by an unknown number. The caller will claim to be from the IRS and will threaten you with numerous outcomes, including foreclosure, arrest or deportation if you originally are not from the U.S., if a payment isn’t made.
- Tips to protect yourself: Always be skeptical of who you are talking to and what information you release. If you receive a call from someone claiming to be from the IRS, verify from an independent source that the call is official before giving out any personal information.
Scam #2: Identity Theft
Identity theft is the second most common consumer complaint.In this scam, assailants use your personal information, such as your name, date of birth or social security number to impersonate you by opening credit cards in your name, creating fake identification tied to your information or other types of fraud that can be tied back to your identity.
When your identity has been stolen, scammers have the ability to drain bank accounts, charge credit cards and even defraud the government through your personal information.
- Tips to protect yourself: To ensure your safety you can strengthen your passwords, limit how much information you divulge to others. Additionally, you should shred any documents containing sensitive or personal information.
Scam #3: Robocalls
Similar to IRS impersonators, 2.4 million robocalls are made each month, often from overseas. These callers tend to mask their identities with fake numbers and pretend to be from a government agency hoping to obtain any sensitive information that can put you at risk.
- Tips to protect yourself: Simply put, if you don’t recognize the number calling you, don’t answer the phone. If you do answer the phone, hang up if you don’t recognize the other person on the line. Always double-check the phone number — either through a quick Google search or by using tools like Whitepages — to see if it’s from a legitimate source.
Scan #4: Sweepstakes Scam
Tens of thousands of seniors lose more than $300 million each year due to sweepstakes scams. In this type of scam, assailants falsely claim that you’ve won a lottery and ask you to pay a fee to collect your winnings.
This is also known as the “Jamaican lottery scam” since these types of hoaxes typically come from an “876” number, the country code from Jamaica.
- Tips to protect yourself: If you don’t remember entering yourself into a lottery, or if you receive a call about winning the lottery from an “876” number, double-check with an official lottery source before giving out your information.
Scam #5: Computer Tech Support Fraud
Computer tech scams steal $2.9 billion annually from financial exploitation. Often, fraudulent people can either call you or act as website bot pretending to work for companies such as Microsoft, Apple or Dell. Their goal is to convince you that your computer has a virus so that they offer to fix it and can steal your personal information
- Tips to protect yourself: Computer problems are always frustrating, but you should remain vigilant of technicians offering to fix your computer. If you do find yourself with a computer virus, go to a reputable source — like the computer manufacturer or a well-known tech store — to get it fixed.
Scam #6: Grandparent Scams
This popular scam targets grandparents. In this type of scam, imposters contact grandparents pretending to be their grandchild or claim to be holding their grandchild for ransom, and ask for a fixed amount of money.
- Tips to protect yourself: If you have a grandchild and receive one of these calls, hang up if you don’t recognize the number or voice, or verify with your children or grandchildren to see if there’s any truth to these matters.
Scam #7: Romance Fraud
Romance fraud exploits the loneliness and vulnerability of seniors. Typically, imposters pick their targets through dating sites, which the Pew Research Center estimates 12 percent of people ages 55 to 64 are actively using.
This scam begins as a typical online relationship. After trust has been built, the “catfish” asks for money for medical emergencies, hotel expenses or other convincing reasons. This type of scam often lasts for a significant length of time, as bank accounts are depleted.
- Tips to protect yourself: If you’re using an online dating site, be wary of anyone asking for money, even for emergencies. Verify that the person you’re speaking with is who they say they are by meeting them in person (safely) or video calling them.
Scam #8: Fake Social Security Calls
Similar to an IRS scam, this type of scam involves con artists posing as an employee from the Social Security Administration. Once they’ve contacted you, they’ll ask for your social security number, date of birth, bank account information, maiden name or other personal data. With this information, they’re able to open lines of credit and make purchases on your behalf without your knowledge.
- Tips to protect yourself: If you receive a call from someone purporting to be from the Social Security Administration without warning, call the SSA at 800–772–1213 to verify that the call is real. Remember, the SSA never asks for your Social Security number over email, so never give it out that way.
Scam #9: Lawsuit or Arrest Threats
In a lawsuit or arrest threat scam, you’re called by someone impersonating a law enforcement officer from a number of agencies, such as the police department. Often, these fraudulent callers inform you that there’s a warrant out for your arrest and threaten you with arrest if a payment isn’t completed. Many times these callers say that the warrant is for missed jury duty or for unpaid taxes.
- Tips to protect yourself: To avoid becoming a victim of an arrest threat scam, ask for the caller’s name and credentials and verify them with the particular law enforcement agency they are claiming to call from.
How to Recognize and Avoid a Financial Scam
The first step to avoiding becoming a victim of a scam is learning how to recognize one. As technology continues to advance, fraudulent activities also becomes more tricky to recognize. Below, we’ve outlined a few red flags that signal you may be the target of a financial scam.
1. The Email Contains Fraudulent Phrases or Demands Action.
“Phishing emails” are emails that look to be from an agency or company you know and trusts, such as the IRS, the police department or your bank, but are actually from fraudulent users looking to gain access to your personal information.
These phishing emails have real consequences, so it’s important to know how to spot them. Often, they look like legitimate emails but include a sense of urgency that includes one or more of the following phrases.
- “There is a problem with your current account or payment information.”
- “Please provide additional confirmation of personal information.”
- “Click on a link for payment.”
- “You’re eligible for a refund.”
- “We are noticing suspicious activity in your account or log-in attempts.”
- “You must act now!”
These scammers are resourceful and often use the logo of the company they’re purporting to be from to draw you in even further. Although the email may look real, it’s often not. These con artists have no affiliation with the company and are trying to get access to your personal information.
2. You’re Being Asked To Make Payments Upfront.
Any time a site or caller tries to have you pay money without giving you a clear indication of what they are trying to sell, where your money is going or why they need payment immediately, it’s more than likely a scam. Ask for as much information as possible before you make a purchase — and avoid giving out financial information if you’re told the payment must be made prior to being given information.
3. You’re Being Threatened for Not Paying.
If a caller or email is pressuring you or rushing you into making a purchase, it’s a sign that the activity may be fraudulent. These pressure tactics are done to pressure or scare you into giving out your financial information without fully vetting the contact.
4. The Email or Website Doesn’t Look Secure.
If you’re sent an email or directed to a website that doesn’t look secure, it could be a scam. Clicking on a fraudulent link or downloading an unknown file could unknowingly download malicious software or viruses on your computer.
If you’re being prompted to download files or make a software update, always contact the original manufacturer to ensure that this is needed and reputable. Other signs that a website may not be legitimate include:
- You’re bombarded with pop-ups
- The domain name is similar to the name of a reputable company, like your bank, but is spelled wrong or includes unnecessary words
- The website is prompting you to pay through unsecure methods, such as a wire transfer or money order
- The website contains grammar and spelling mistakes
- The website doesn’t have a postal address or contact information
- The website has an HTTP address rather than a secure HTTPS address
5. You Don’t Understand What’s Being Asked of You.
If someone has contacted you with a request to transfer money and you don’t understand what’s fully being asked of you, it’s a sign that something is wrong. Often, these scams will involve overly complex language designed to confuse the target into giving out information. If you feel unsure, always clarify.
6. You’re Being Offered Extraordinary Wealth.
As the saying goes, if it seems to be too good to be true, it probably is. If you’re contacted by anyone claiming that you’ve suddenly come into exceptional and unexpected wealth — such as through a lottery win — you should be cautious. Double-check the information and, if necessary, seek legal counsel. If the offer is legitimate, it will stand. If not, you’ll have avoided a scam.
These scams can have real consequences. If you give them any personal information, you have opened the door for them to access virtually everything. So, if you feel that you are encountering a hoax, do not provide any of your personal information or financial information without verifying the facts first.
How to Protect Yourself Against Scams
If you think you’re the subject of a scam, there are various ways you can protect yourself. We’ve outlined ten tips to better prepare yourself when you feel that you are being scammed.
Learn To Spot Imposters
Scammers tend to impersonate someone you would trust, such as a government official, family member, a charity or a company you do business with. These hoaxes can come in the form of a call or even a text message. If you don’t recognize the number that’s calling simply do not answer. If you answer and you feel that it is a scam, hang up.
Search Online If You Think You’re Being Targeted
Whether the scam comes to you via telephone, email or text message, quickly do an online search. Just type the company or product name into your desired search engine with the words “review,” “complaint” or “scam” and read what articles the search engine provides you with. If it is a scam, it’s likely that there’s additional information out there about the situation you’re experiencing.
Double-Check Your Caller ID
Scammers tend to use fake phone numbers or phone numbers that are very similar to yours or a family or friend’s phone number, a practice known as “spoofing.”
If you don’t recognize the number, simply do not answer the phone, or double-check the phone number through reverse searches online. If you receive a call from a number you don’t recognize asking for money or personal information, it’s like a scam.
Don’t Pay Upfront for a Promise
If an unknown caller asks you to pay in advance for debt relief, credit card loans, mortgage assistance or a job, or if they’re informing you that you won a prize but must pay taxes or fees to collect your winnings, it’s likely a hoax. You should always double-check that the call is legitimate before disclosing any personal or financial information.
Consider How You Pay
When paying for something online you should always consider how you pay. Credit cards have significant fraud protection built-in, but other payment methods aren’t as secure. Wiring money and using reloadable cards are risky because it’s nearly always impossible to get your money back once it’s gone.
Talk To Someone You Trust
Before you spend your money or give up your personal information, talk to someone you trust first. Scammers want you to make spurious decisions and might threaten you over the phone. If you feel you’re being pressured into something, slow down and check their story, do a quick online search, ask an expert — or just tell a friend.
Hang Up On Robocalls
If you answer the phone from an unknown caller and hear a recorded sales pitch, it’s always a good idea to hang up. Often, these calls will prompt you to press “1” to be taken off the list. This should be avoided as it can lead to more robocalls.
Be Skeptical of Trial Offers
Many companies offer now offer trial offers, such as if you’re interested, do additional research before you give out your personal information. Checking the cancelation policy and reviewing your monthly statements are great ways to safeguard your hard-earned money.
Install Security Software
Be sure to install computer security software for additional security on your devices to ensure the safety of sensitive information and save money. In addition to installing security software, adding a two-step verification for your accounts adds another level of security when accessing your accounts.
Sign Up For Free Scam Alerts from the FTC
Signing up for the latest email scam alerts gives you notifications straight of recent scams. Sign up here if you would like to receive scam alerts from the FTC.
How To Report a Scam
There are various types of scams, so it can be difficult to know how to file for a specific type. However, it’s always in your best interest to file a report with your local police department and contact your state consumer protection office if you’ve been the victim of fraudulent activity. You can also file a report of certain types of scams and fraud with federal law enforcement agencies, too.
Federal agencies typically don’t act on your behalf, but they will use complaints to record patterns of abuse. This aids them when they do take action on a specific company or industry. Use the list below for a more detailed list of agencies you can contact for a specific scam.
Common Scams and Fraud
Financial Fraud (credit, loans, and mortgage)
Identity Theft or Data Breaches
IRS and Other Government Imposter Scams
Social Security Fraud
If you have been a victim of any of these types of fraud, the first step in recovery is to report your claim. Reporting fraud doesn’t ensure you’ll recover everything you lost, but it does improve your chances of getting some of it back and preventing future losses as well. Reporting these crimes also helps authorities put an end to these scams and limit the chances of others becoming victims.
Additional Resources for Seniors
For additional protection and assistance regarding other types of fraudulent activities, we’ve compiled a list of additional resources for finding the proper help
Food Stamp (SNAP) Fraud
Misuse of Federal Funds
Remember, always be skeptical when answering the phone from a number you aren’t familiar with, replying to an email from an unknown sender or giving out personal information over the internet or phone. This can be a scam and put all of your sensitive information at risk. To further protect yourself and your personal information online, check out these Norton coupons for an added layer of security.
Above all, trust your intuition; if you need additional help, do a quick web search, talk to a friend or call an expert.