The Federal Bureau of Investigations offers several insights into why fraudsters target the elderly. According to the FBI, many seniors have a bit of a nest egg. Many seniors own property and have equity in their homes, good credit, investments, and retirement savings that criminals can target for financial gain.
Other key issues are politeness and an incentive to trust. People who grew up in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s are generally considered easier to target. They won’t hang up on someone or look for deception.
“Our seniors are simply more trusting and less aware as they grow older,” warned attorney Beattie B. Ashmore. “It’s sad and unfortunate, but seniors are easily taken advantage of by the most inept of con men and women.” To date, Ashmore has disbursed over $58 million to 8,000 victims in three different federal Ponzi schemes from South Carolina.
Another reason scam artists focus on seniors rather than younger populations is because of the elderly’s tendency not to report a crime. Some elderly never realize they were scammed. Others realize it and become too embarrassed to tell their families or go to the police.
Common Fraud Schemes Targeting the Elderly
- Fake Social Security Administration (SSA) Calls: The National Council on Aging (NCOA) warns seniors and their families to be wary of calls allegedly from the SSA. Medicare and Medicaid scams are all too common. The calls will ask for the senior’s personal information, including their social security numbers. The callers then use this identity theft for financial gain. Seniors should be reminded that the real SSA almost never makes calls. They’ll never ask for personal identification information over the phone, and they’ll never threaten legal action.
- Grandparent Scams: The grandparent scam has been around a long time. At its most basic, a person contacts a senior pretending to be their grandchild who needs money because of a legal issue or accident. These fraudsters ask the senior to send them cash, wire transfer them money, or send gift cards. They claim not to want to worry other members of the family or to be too embarrassed to go to a parent or sibling for help. Seniors should be warned of this type of scam and should check with another family member before ever sending money.
- Funeral and Cemetery Scams: NCOA also warns about many other scams, including funeral and cemetery fraud. Fraudsters keep track of obituaries and then contact surviving family members claiming the deceased left behind a debt. Another type of scam is for the funeral home or other service providers to overcharge or push families into buying unnecessary products and services.
- Investment Schemes: Seniors often try to be careful about managing their retirement savings and other investments. But if they aren’t financial professionals, then there’s a lot they don’t know. Their lack of knowledge can lead them to agree to a scam that could cost them their life’s savings. “Higher than normal returns, contacts from strangers, claims of unclaimed funds, and ‘secret trading programs’ are just a few of the tell-tale signs” of an investment scheme, said Ashmore.
- Property Tax and Reverse Mortgage Scams: Older individuals often own their homes and have considerable equity. A home is usually a senior’s most valuable property. If an elderly person is short of cash, though, they can be tricked into pursuing a fraudulent reverse mortgage. Property tax schemes claiming to be from a county assessor’s office also are another way scammers pursue cash from seniors.
- Lottery and Sweepstakes Scams: Fraudsters claim a senior won a prize of some kind, such as a trip or new car, but need to make a payment to receive it. For instance, the scammers might claim the winner is responsible for the taxes on the prize. The scammers collect the “tax fees” before the senior realizes there is no prize or the fake check for the prize money bounces.
- Natural Disaster Scams: Recovering after a natural disaster is becoming an all-too-common problem in the U.S. Fraudsters will set themselves up as a helpful service, a charity, or even a government agency to obtain people’s personal and financial information. Seniors should be wary of any natural disaster recovery service or agency that contacts them directly and asks for personal information.
How to Help the Seniors Avoid Scams
If you’re worried about your parents, grandparents, or other elderly loved ones becoming a target for fraud, consider the level of action you should take. Start off with educating your loved one about the prevalence of fraud and get them comfortable talking about it with you. Telemarketing and email scams fill up everyone’s inbox. You might have to push your elderly loved ones to be a bit more wary of strangers.
Remind seniors to never give away personal and financial information over the phone or through an email. They shouldn’t ever give out their social security number, credit card or debit card number, bank account or routing numbers, or information regarding how much money they have or the value of their property.
Tell seniors that most reputable services don’t reach out to people directly. Cold calling isn’t entirely a thing of the past, but most businesses focus on building a strong reputation and online marketing. If someone is calling them and asking if they need some type of service or want to get involved in a new investment, their answer should be “no.”
Give them resources to check on a possible scam. The answer could be as simple as an online search. “Google is a wonderful tool,” said Ashmore. “I’m always amazed to see multimillion-dollar fraud schemes perpetrated by those that have a history of fraud on the internet.” If your loved one isn’t comfortable with computers or being online, let them know you’re always available to run a search for them.
If you’re worried your relative has been or will be a fraud victim, take a more active role. “Adult children need the ability to monitor their elderly parents’ finances,” said Ashmore. “They don’t necessarily need to actually control the finances—although on a case-by-case basis, it’s sometimes certainly necessary. But they need to be able to access all financial information.”
Were You or a Relative a Victim of Fraud?
If you believe you or an elderly loved one has been the victim of a fraud scheme, talk with an attorney who handles consumer fraud cases. A lawyer can help you file a complaint regarding the scam and, in some cases, pursue legal action.