Seniors are a leading target of scammers. The American Journal of Public Health reports that at least five percent of seniors experience some form of fraud or scam each year.
Home Instead Senior Care, which created the Protect Seniors Online program, conducted a recent survey of 1,000 North American seniors and turned up some startling big-picture numbers.
- More than two-thirds of seniors report being targeted or victimized by at least one common scam.
- More than a third have found themselves at the focus of online confidence tricks or hacking attempts, and 28 percent have downloaded a computer virus.
Confidence scammers and hackers should be a major cause of concern for older adults in safeguarding their financial well-being, and these types of online schemes are fast overtaking their offline counterparts in frequency. Here are five of the most common online scams targeting older adults and important steps to avoid them.
1. Grandparent Scams
This scam involves a fraudster sending an e-mail pretending to either be or to represent a grandchild or other family member in financial or legal trouble.
Typically this situation is presented as a “send money now” emergency. The scammer requests an urgent wire transfer, often for something such as bail money or lawyer’s fees, and begs their target not to tell anyone else in the family and reveal their shame. Once the money is wired, the target never hears from their false grandchild again.
The National Consumers League recommends several ways to avoid this scam.
- Beware of any urgent solicitation of funds — especially for bail money, lawyer’s fees or medical bills — and be doubly suspicious when the payment method is a wire transfer.
- Independently contact the relative who the scam artist is claiming to be (or represent) at a phone number you know to verify their story.
- Look out for scammers contacting you late at night in order to confuse you.
2. Tech Support Scams
These take two major forms. In the first, the scammer calls their target, purports to represent “Windows technical support,” “Dell technical support” or similar, and tries to trick the senior into downloading malware that gives the scammer access to the computer they are promising to “clean up.”
In the second, more elaborate type of tech support scam, the scammer purchases likely Google keywords for technical support searches and sets up their own fake website, tempting victims into unwittingly contacting them and then accessing their computers under the pretext of providing requested help.
The Federal Trade Commission recommends these tips to avoid tech support scams.
- Never give financial information, credit card information or control of your computer to someone who calls you out of the blue and claims to be from any form of “technical support,” and never follow instructions from this person to download anything to your computer.
- If you do happen to need tech support, find the company’s contact information on its software package or on your receipt.
- If concerned about your computer’s security, contact your security software company directly for assistance.
3. Fake Prescription Drugs Scams
This type of scam exploits older adults seeking online deals for prescription drugs. The scammers set up fake websites advertising counterfeit drugs at cheap prices. The victims pay online, only they receive medications that are not only useless but sometimes create new health issues.
Justin Lavelle, chief communications director at BeenVerified.com, offers the following advice for avoiding this scam: “Talk to your family before ordering any medications online. That way, they can assist you on verifying that the site and the medication are both legitimate.”
4. Online Dating Scams
A common online dating scam involves a con artist targeting older single women, building a rapport with them via an online dating website and then asking them to wire increasingly large amounts of money to a foreign address. The scammer abruptly disappears one day with the money.
Lavelle has several tips for avoiding this trap.
- Treat it as a red flag if your online love interest asks for money, especially if you’ve never met face-to-face. Scammers often use a sympathetic-sounding excuse, like needing money for a sick relative.
- Be suspicious if they come up with endless excuses to avoid meeting.
- During online chats, make sure the flow of conversation makes sense and try switching things up to ensure they can keep track with you, as this can help to expose robot profiles.
- Research the person on Google and social media and through their friends before agreeing to meet face-to-face.
5. Mortgage Closing Phishing Scams
These scams target the mortgage closing fees being held in your account. The criminals hack into the e-mail accounts of consumers and real estate agents to gain information on the closing date, then e-mail the buyer to pose as a realtor or title company on closing day.
The fraudster inevitably claims that the wiring instructions for the closing funds have changed and instruct the buyer to send funds to a new account (theirs). By this method, your funds can be cleaned out in minutes and impossible to recover.
“E-mail is not a secure way to send financial information, so never respond to an e-mail requesting money or wire transfers,” advises Lavelle.
Other Disreputable Practices
Not all online scams are outright criminal. Some are technically legal but still disreputable.
“Free products that require a credit card for shipping have tripped up half of my clients,” says Kay Bransford, a money manager and founder of financial management company MemoryBanc. “They don’t realize they agreed to a subscription service until we find charges on the credit card.”
The best defense is to stay informed, make sure you know exactly who you’re interacting with online, and verify that any circumstance involving online money requests is above board.
If you ever do run afoul of an online scam, you can report it to any of the following agencies:
- The FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center
- The FTC
- EConsumer.gov (operated by the International Consumer Protection and Enforcement Network)
- The U.S. Department of Justice
Ian Samuels is a published poet and a freelance journalist and copywriter who writes on a wide range of topics. When away from the keyboard he can very often be found indulging his enthusiasms for reading, cooking, classic films or reggae music.