One day you get a call informing you that you’ve won a cash prize, or an invitation to buy into an investment that outperforms the market, or an email telling you that your medical insurer needs your insurance ID. Scenarios like these should raise red flags. While some of the time they may be legitimate, oftentimes these are scams.
As technology becomes more sophisticated, so too do unscrupulous scammers.
“The stereotype is that older adults have more money,” says Brandy Bauer, communications manager for economic security at the National Council on Aging. “That, coupled with the perception that seniors are in cognitive decline, means that older people are a target for economic exploitation.”
Falling victim to a scam can have real consequences. Seniors are often living on a fixed income and don’t have the time to recover and rebuild their savings should fraud lead to a large financial loss, says Bauer.
That said, for many of these scams to work, scammers want you to hand over your personal information. Knowing the red flags to look out for can help you avoid giving out the information they desperately need, protecting you and your assets from falling into the wrong hands.
“The key to avoiding many scams is to stay educated and to continuously monitor your accounts for suspicious activity,” says Liz Loewy, former chief of the elder abuse unit in the Manhattan District Attorney’s office who is now senior vice president for industry relations at EverSafe a service that helps protect seniors from fraud and identity theft.
When in doubt about whether an offer or request is legitimate, it’s best to have a trusted family member or friend take a look, Loewy says.
“It never hurts to have a trusted advocate serve as a second set of eyes,” she says.
What follows are some of the most common scams targeting seniors today.
1. Phone Scams Scams that take place over the phone are one of the most common types to affect seniors. Some current schemes include people posing as IRS agents to collect personal information (the IRS does not contact you over the phone) and scammers pretending to be technicians from computer companies claiming to have detected a problem with your computer. With little way of verifying a caller’s identify, avoid giving out any personal information over the phone.
Once on the phone, it can be hard for many seniors to say no to caller requests. To avoid being put in an uncomfortable position in the first place, consider screening calls on cell phones and landlines with caller ID. If you don’t recognize the number, don’t pick up.
2. Medicare and Health Insurance Scams Beware of people posing as medical professionals who request your medical information over the phone or online. Scammers can use your health insurance ID number and other personal information to fraudulently bill Medicare or insurance companies. In the meantime, you could get saddled with copays and percentage-based fees for care you never received.
Also be wary of companies selling durable medical equipment such as wheelchairs, and claims that they’re covered by Medicaid. Since Medicaid has strict rules about which agencies you can use to acquire medical equipment, oftentimes this type of equipment is not actually covered.
Don’t provide your medical information to anyone unless you are 100 percent sure you know who you’re talking to. Review your insurance statements regularly to spot any suspicious activity.
3. Internet and Email Scams Watch out for pop-ups on your computer, phone or tablet that ask you to download things like virus protection software. Ironically, you may actually be downloading a virus that will mine your computer for personal data.
Similarly, you may receive official-looking emails telling you to download something or click on an unknown link. “Phishing” scammers often use this tactic, and once you click, the scammer is given a porthole into the information stored on your computer. What’s worse, sometimes simply opening these emails is enough to give scammers access to your data.
Before opening any emails, make sure they’re from a legitimate source that you recognize. In general, before entering any personal information online, look for a padlock symbol in your browser bar (near the URL) or a web address that includes HTTPS at the beginning of the URL. Any information you type into a website that includes these markers is encrypted and protected by the website.
4. Sweepstakes and Lottery Scams Scammers may inform you that you’re the winner of a sweepstakes or lottery prize, and that all you have do to claim your prize is pay a processing fee or taxes upfront. They may go so far as to send a fake check for you to cash, knowing that it will take a few days for your bank to reject it. In the meantime, the fraudster can pocket your money and disappear.
5. Investment Schemes Seniors managing their finances after retirement may encounter investments that sound too good to be true. That’s because a lot of the time, they are. Investments that purport to be a limited-time offer or claim returns that are higher than the market—think the Bernie Madoff pyramid scheme—should raise red flags for any investor. Make sure you fully understand any kind of investment you’re considering participating in.
6. Asset Recovery Scams An insidious and increasingly common scheme, asset recovery scams target older adults who have already been the victim of a scam. For example, a perpetrator might contact a senior taken in by a timeshare scam, promising to help the senior recover some of their lost money. The scammers then collect personal information from the senior that gives them access to the senior’s finances -- victimizing them twice.
7. Social Media Scams Increasingly, seniors are on social media, and that means a lot of their personal information is readily available to the public. If you’re on social media, scammers may find photographs of friends and family members, gathering names and other information. Then they contact you, claiming that one of the people you know is in some kind of financial trouble and needs you to send them money. Protect your information on social media by changing privacy settings so that only family and friends can view your profile.
8. Charity Scams During the end of the year, the holiday season, or after a well-publicized disaster, some scammers try to take advantage of seniors’ charitable instincts by soliciting money for bogus organizations. Before giving, make sure to vet all charities to make sure they are legitimate and that your money will actually go to help those in need.