Grandparents love their grandkids—and that’s just one of the weaknesses that scammers have learned to exploit. Scammers use various specific tactics to target older victims, according to a recent report by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). When the FTC analyzed the 1.5 million fraud reports it had received from consumers for a recent 12-month period, it was not surprising that some key differences emerged between the scams that victimized people age 60 and older and those that targeted younger people. Knowing the details of these senior-focused frauds can help older people protect themselves…and help younger people provide support to their older loved ones.
Among the report’s highlights…
Older victims are most often contacted over the phone. People tend to assume that the Internet is where scammers are lurking these days, and certainly there are plenty of dangers online. But based on reports to the FTC, scammers actually contact victims age 60 and up via phone more than four times as often as by all other forms of contact combined.
Scammers like the phone because calling allows them to keep the pressure dialed up—if they contact a would-be victim via e-mail or text, that victim is more likely to take a moment to pause and think before responding. Scammers probably would prefer to call younger victims, too, but younger generations rarely answer calls from people they don’t know, preferring to text their friends and let callers leave voicemails.
What to do: If you don’t recognize a caller on caller-ID, don’t answer—if it’s important, the caller will leave a message. A scammer might leave a message, too, but at least you would have time to consider whether it’s a scam before calling back. Be suspicious if your phone’s caller-ID names a government agency or well-known corporation. Scammers often show up on caller-ID with fake government and big-company IDs. Consider signing up for a robocall-blocking service offered by your cell-phone service provider. If you’re not satisfied with your provider’s service, you could try a third-party robocall-blocking app such as Nomorobo (free for landlines, $1.99 per month for smartphones). This can reduce the number of automated calls you receive, including scam calls, though it won’t stop them entirely.
Scammers take advantage of grandparents’ love for their grandchildren. People age 60 and older are more than three times more likely than younger people to lose money to the so-called family/friend imposter scam. Even if you have heard about this scam before, it’s easy to get caught off guard and fall for it, so it’s wise to review what to do. There are several versions, but when it’s perpetrated on an older victim it usually works like this…
A grandparent receives a call explaining that one of his/her grandkids is in a very difficult situation and desperately needs money. Sometimes the grandchild is said to be in the hospital too badly injured to speak on the phone…other times the grandchild is said to be in jail, perhaps a foreign jail during a spring-break trip to Cancun gone wrong. The parents can’t be reached—the grandparent is the grandchild’s last hope. In fact, the grandchild is just fine, but concerned grandparents sometimes are convinced to send money before they learn this. The scammer’s presumption is that grandparents feel responsible for their grandkids but often don’t know enough about their grandkids’ whereabouts to spot the lie.
What to do: If someone claims your grandchild needs cash, refuse to be rushed—demand a callback name and phone number, then hang up and try to reach the grandchild and/or his parents to determine whether the call is legitimate. If the caller refuses to provide a callback number, assume it’s a scam. If the caller claims to represent a particular hospital or police department, look up that organization’s actual phone number, call that number and ask to speak with the name you were given.
Don’t be swayed by the fact that a caller knows a few details about your grandchild, such as her name or where she is spending spring break. A scammer might have gleaned that information from social-media websites or elsewhere.
Scammers increasingly ask for gift cards. Historically, scammers have tried to get victims to send money via wire transfer, credit card, check or cash. That still happens—but these days, gift cards are the preferred plunder in 23% of all scams reported by victims who are 60 or older. Gift cards are easy for scammers to convert to cash but very difficult for victims to cancel once the card or its identifying numbers have been provided.
What to do: If anyone other than a retailer tells you that gift cards are an acceptable method of payment, there’s a good chance that you’re being scammed—hang up.
Time-share scams often are incredibly costly. Time-shares can be difficult to resell, and some scammers take advantage of this challenge by offering to help time-share owners sell these properties. In reality, these scammers pocket payments from time-share owners, then do little or nothing to help them. Older people are far more likely to be targeted with this scam than younger people, because they’re often the ones with time-shares to sell.
What to do: Never work with any time-share–resale service that demands payment from you before the sale is finalized.
Tech-support scams are especially likely to snare seniors. A victim receives a phone call from someone claiming to be with a well-known tech company—the victim’s caller-ID likely lists a big-name tech company, such as Microsoft or Apple (as noted previously, caller-ID can be faked). This ersatz phone rep claims he has identified a problem with the victim’s computer, but says he can help. Or in a different version of this scam, a message pops up on a victim’s computer screen claiming that the computer has a problem and its owner should call the provided phone number for help. In either version of this scam, the victim might be asked to pay for tech support…to provide personal information that could be used for ID theft…and/or to take steps that provide this “tech support” worker with remote access to the victim’s computer—which hands total control of the machine to this stranger.
What to do: Ignore calls and pop-up ads claiming to be from tech support. Legitimate tech support does not call unprompted or send pop-up messages asking you to call. If this pop-up message cannot easily be closed, try closing the Internet browser and/or turning off the computer. Install a well-regarded security program on your computer, such as Malware Bytes (Free)…or Kaspersky Total Security (from $39.99/year,), and keep this up to date.
If you believe that there might be an actual problem with your computer, ask a tech-savvy loved one for help or bring it to a local computer repair shop.
This year, numerous coronavirus scams have appeared, many of them targeting seniors. Among them…
Cruise line refund scams. Scammers call or e-mail and ask cruise customers to provide bank or credit card account information to process refunds from cancelled cruises. Real cruise lines wouldn’t have to ask for this information—they have it on file. The scammer likely guessed that the victim enjoyed cruising based on his/her social-media posts. Hang up, look up the phone number of the cruise line, and call to find out whether the call you received was legitimate.
Test-kit scams. Medicare is not contacting seniors to offer free COVID-19 test kits—if you receive a call or e-mail from someone claiming to work for Medicare and offering a free test, it’s a scam. When real Medicare contacts people, it doesn’t ask for their Medicare IDs or Social Security numbers.
Contact tracing scams. Many states are contacting citizens via text and phone to warn them that they might have been in contact with someone who has COVID-19. But if the person who contacts you asks for personal information, such as your Medicare ID or Social Security number, it’s a scammer—government agencies won’t call and ask for these.