Seniors and their families — yes, it affects the entire family — are losing billions of dollars to scammers each year. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) says that senior scams across the board are on the rise. So while it can feel a bit overwhelming and confusing to figure out what a scam looks like and what you should do, it's an important conversation to have as a family.
From looking out for your parents and grandparents to educating your kids on what to look for, these are some of the top scam-fighting tactics you should be familiar with. Get the conversation going at your next dinner or family gathering to help keep your loved ones safe and informed.
1. Keep an eye out for romance scams.
Romance scams are the number one scam that seniors are losing money to, according to the FTC.
“When someone loses someone, they have a loss of personal connection,” says Adrienne Omansky, the founder and director of the program, Stop Senior Scams Acting Program (SSSAP). “So where do they go? They go to the internet.”
For this type of scam, remember that the scammer knows what to say or do to make you feel comfortable, happy, or just not lonely. They will agree with you, find things you have in common, and try to get close to you very quickly.
Just talking about these things is a good first step Omansky says. After all, it’s not an easy conversation to have. You might not think about talking to your parents or grandparents about their love life, but if you have a good line of communication open, they’re more likely to talk to you in times of need. Plus, it’s important to remember that it can really happen to anyone in any income bracket.
If you are looking for a way to broach this subject with a senior in your life, the popular podcast Dirty John tackles this topic, and it features a 50-something woman in Los Angeles who fell for a man that was a con artist. Another one-off podcast episode that addresses this topic is Gil from London by the podcast, Criminal. Sharing these podcasts and discussing them with your parent or grandparent can open the path to discussing their love life.
2. Be aware of imposter scams.
“Imposter scams are threatening calls from scammers who claim to represent government agencies and programs including the Internal Revenue Service, Social Security Administration, or Medicare,” says Lara Sutherlin, administrator for the Division of Trade and Consumer Protection in Wisconsin. “Imposters may also claim to represent the local utility provider or a tech support business (often Microsoft).”
The FTC says about one in five people report they’ve experienced an imposter scam. Sutherlin sees a lot of imposter scams and complaints in her job, and she says seniors should be on alert for anyone who claims to be with a certain organization and is also asking for money.
When it doubt, ask to call the office back directly, and just say that you want to verify their contact information. Scammers will get defensive or insist on calling you back, while real company representatives should give you their information. You can also report the scam. Here are several different options available to consumers for reporting.
3. Know what to look for with prize or sweepstakes scams.
This one can definitely overlap with the imposter scam (when someone pretends to be someone else), but it’s good to look out for it on its own since it comes up so often.
You likely know what many of these scams look like in the form of emails, phone calls, and more. ("Congratulations, you’ve won a million dollars!") But scammers are getting more and more sophisticated, making it harder to identify right away.
“They can be tricky,” Omansky says. “But if anyone is asking you for money to claim a prize, it’s a scam.”
Remember that places will not ask you to pay taxes up front to claim a prize. And this is another one where you can ask for a number to call them back or even to ask for a supervisor to talk to. Flip the conversation around and ask them the questions instead of them leading you. (Or just hang up; that works, too!)
4. Look out for grandchildren scams.
Another scam Omansky wants everyone to look out for is the grandchildren scam. In this scheme, the scammer essentially pulls in a detail or story about someone’s grandchild, counting on a grandparent’s sympathy and emotions to come into play.
Omansky usually hears about scammers who claim a grandchild is hurt, in trouble, or even kidnapped. One instance she’s heard about several times is when someone claims they've taken someone’s grandchild. They’ll even play screaming audio in the background (just a recording) to make it sound real.
“Do not engage with these scammers,” Omansky says. “The longer you are on the phone, the more likely they are to get money from you. And they will just play with your emotions.”
For families that are looking for a way to avoid this scam, Omansky recommends setting a code word within the family. This can be used for a lot of different scenarios, and the word should be kept completely secret. If there is ever a stressful situation or a case of possible identity fraud, ask what the family word is.
5. Don’t fall for personal information scams.
This racket can be found nested in all the other scams, but it’s worth highlighting separately. Omansky wants people to know that there is so much publicly accessible personal information online — mostly from social media — that you should not fall for something just because the scammer knows a few personal details.
“You can get names from an obituary, details about where someone is or where they went on vacation from social media posts, and lots of other information and details online,” she says. “Don’t fall for it.”
Some people will even try to pretend like they know you or that you have mutual contacts, but don’t take their word for it. Ask questions. Do some investigating on your own. And above all, talk about it.
“Scammers make a number of assumptions about seniors, including that they are overly trusting, may have significant savings in the bank, are easily confused, and may be lonely and open to conversation,” Sutherlin says. “While these generalities are not true about all seniors, the stigma makes the entire population an attractive target for thieves. One of the best ways to protect the seniors in your life is to engage them in conversation about the latest scams and their associated red flags.”