Have you or a loved one been contacted by a scammer? If so, you’re not alone: approximately 1.7 million fraud complaints were recorded in the US in 2019. From robo-calls and false computer virus alerts to traditional email solicitations, fraud is becoming more and more prevalent on a wide variety of communication platforms. And unfortunately, older adults are one of scammers most frequent targets. In 2019, older adults lost nearly $3 billion to scammers, with a loss per scam increase of a reported 55 percent from 2017.
It can be difficult to discern whether or not you’re receiving fraudulent messages--and, if so, what to do about it. While completely escaping the reach of scammers is challenging, there are several measures you can put in place to cut down the risk of interacting with them, as well as some ways to prepare for when you do encounter fraud. Below we share five suggestions to support fraud prevention for older adults and their families.
Most successful scams sound plausible, so it’s important to stay informed on some of the most common setups. One of the most popular scams targeting older adults is known as the “Hey grandma” scam, in which the scammer poses as a loved one requesting immediate financial assistance. During the COVID-19 outbreak, this scam has taken on a new twist, with people posing as sick loved ones who need money for care. Hackers are also beginning to get more and more creative with their scams, often gaining access to their targets’ computers and then calling to report a “virus” on the computer that they need information to fix, or else directing targets to install software that will gain access to their files. Scams come and go, and there are several places that reliably post the most prevalent types currently. The FBI posts a comprehensive list of typical scams on their website, including fraudulent messages about home repairs, government prosecution, and sweepstakes winnings. The Lackawanna County Area Agency on Agency also posts notices on scams within our area, and many Facebook groups are dedicated to disseminating information about fraud. Do your research and share your findings with friends and family members. If you do receive a call, text or email that doesn’t look quite right, it’s a good idea to take a second to Google or consult trusted resources about similar setups. Of course, this method isn’t foolproof if the scam is posing as a legitimate company, which is why the next suggestions are also important to remember.
Most scams thrive on gaining money directly from their target, or else information that will allow them to steal their targets’ identities. “Hey grandma” scams and advance fee scams are two instances that directly ask for funding, often to be wired to a post office box or mail drop. The Federal Trade Commission warns against sending money to businesses or individuals through gift cards, jewelry or money lending services, and it’s also good to steer clear of those who do not have a street address or refuse to communicate over the phone. Other scams will solicit personal information like your name, social security number, drivers license, and/or bank account numbers. As such, there are a few important facts to keep in mind. Organizations like the IRS and the Social Security Administration will NEVER call unexpectedly and ask for your social security number over the phone. Because it is very easy to make a fraudulent company website or email address that look legitimate, call the number you find on Google--NOT the number they provide you--and ask to speak with a customer service representative about the message you received. Companies are aware of scammers and have practices in place to verify their services as legitimate. If on the phone with a scammer impersonating a government or financial institution, you can also ask them to share your account information so you can confirm it. Ultimately, sharing any type of personal information should be avoided unless you are one hundred percent sure of 1) the solicitor’s identity and 2) the security of the platform you are sharing it over.
There are often stakes attached to scammers messages, trying to induce fear and make targets think without acting. Of course, when there appears to be a loved one’s health at stake or the threat of jail time or repossession, panic sets in, but resist the urge to act quickly when you receive such a message from an unfamiliar source. Instead, take the time to verify the story by asking questions you know a scammer will not be able to answer and calling family members or authorities on a trusted number to confirm the situation. Scammers will often ask you to keep the situation a secret or work with a partner impersonating an authority to threaten you--if you spot these red flags, hang up immediately and call the authorities to report their claims. Though receiving a scam alert can be scary, remember: scammers have to do this, because most people, thinking logically, can see through their act. Having a plan of response in place--and knowing popular ploys ahead of time--can help you keep a level head when a fraudulent message comes through.
Many financial institutions and credit card companies have fraud prevention measures in place that alert you to suspicious activities, but it’s smart to review your account statements each month to ensure no fraudulent charges have been made. If you are concerned about an older loved one’s financial statements, initiate a conversation that is respectful and solution-oriented. There are several options available to connect and track family accounts, and just putting accountability measures in place, such as setting a specific time to review accounts each month, may help alleviate the concerns of all parties.
Along with financial costs, many people report feeling embarrassed for falling victim to a crime. In fact, older adults are 93 percent more likely to report fraud when they haven’t been financial impacted . It makes sense that fraud can destabilize you, make you uncertain who to trust or turn to. However, turning to loved ones, financial institutions, and/or the authorities is critical both to take the next steps to get your situation resolved and to help others who may be the scammer’s next targets.
Finally, it is important to remember that whatever the situation, the scammer is at fault, not you. It can be frustrating to realize so many scams are out there, and so many protections are necessary, but becoming more informed can help you protect yourself and your loved ones against potential financial and emotional costs, as well as cut down on the number of individuals able to fall victim to fraudulent schemes. And, of course, you’re not alone. If you have questions or concerns about a message you have received, the FTC and FBI both have forums on which you can submit consumer complaints. Closer to home, check out resources on the Lackawanna County Area Agency on Aging website.