How To Protect Seniors From The Top 5 scams

We all know we’ve got to protect our kids online, but should you actually be on the lookout for your ageing parents more?

Nearly 97% of seniors aged 70+ now use the internet at least once a week to check email, social media or manage money.

But according to a 2020 study by the Aspen Technology Hub: “Strong empirical evidence suggests older adults are as vulnerable as young children in their interactions online.”

This is particularly worrying since nearly half now use online banking, whilst a third file their taxes online.

Fraudsters are targeting this age group relentlessly, and the internet is their golden ticket.

Why are seniors vulnerable?

The main reason, of course, is they may not be as “internet-savvy” as  all other age groups, particularly having grown up without using the internet, email or social media.

For example:

  • 1 in 5 don’t have an antivirus
  • Half don’t have a password on one of their devices
  • Less than a third are “very confident” about using the internet safely

But running a close second, their trust levels are higher. Many scientific studies back this up, with several showing seniors have trouble identifying trustworthy versus untrustworthy people, and a drop in activity in the area of the brain responsible for assessing trust.

Source: Scientific American’s 2012 study

In fact, studies find that “older adults are deceived by misinformation at disproportionate rates.”

And according to the FBI, “People who grew up in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s were generally raised to be polite and trusting.”

Thirdly, they’re viewed as more likely to have savings accumulated throughout their life like retirement funds, along with assets like houses, as well as the tendency to spend less.

These three things alone are a deadly combination.

At the higher end of the age bracket, seniors may have lower cognition or memory and therefore may be easily duped.

They may also have reduced eyesight, making spotting suspicious details on a screen harder, or perhaps forcing them to trust a scammer to tell them what they’re reading.

And seniors are more likely to isolated, with 43% feeling persistent loneliness. if This leaves them even more vulnerable to clever scam artists who can feed them false attention to get what they want.

Finally, underreporting: when seniors do fall victim, they don’t report it, mainly due to embarrassment at being duped due to their vulnerabilities. They may not tell anyone, even family members.

They also have a lack of know-how in finding out who to report it to, and filling out online forms. For example, they struggle to fill out the online FBI forms for scam reporting.

This is obviously great news for scammers, who know they’re much more unlikely to face repercussions if they con a senior.

What’s the risk?

Unfortunately, it’s huge. All the above factors make seniors prime targets.

A study by the University of Portsmouth found that 65-74 year olds are 54 times more likely to be scammed online or frauded than burgled.

According to the US FTC, up to 80% of scam victims are over 65.

Those over 65 are 34% more likely to have lost money on a financial scam than people in their 40s.

Of course, these aren’t all internet-related. Being approached online or by email are the second and third most common contact methods for those aged 60+.

Source: FTC’s 2020 Protecting Older Consumers Report

Phone is by far the most common, but a number of these are ‘tech support’ scams, which involve making the victim go online.

Almost two-thirds have actually been targeted or a victim of an online scam.

And it’s getting worse. There’s been a 400% increase in internet crime for seniors compared with 5 years ago.

What’s more, they also lose more money than younger people.

In 2018 those aged 80+ lost a median of $1,700, which is 2-3 times higher than all other age groups.

Source: FTC’s 2020 Protecting Older Consumers Report

Sadly, the amount people are losing also seems to be on the increase. Those aged 60+ lost 20% more money than in 2017, whilst those aged 80+ lost 55% more.

In total, those aged 60+ lost a crazy $650 million in 2018 to scams.

Some studies say that seniors are less likely to be scammed than younger people, but what they really mean is young people report more scams than older people. This doesn’t mean seniors are targeted less, and is likely due to massive underreporting.

The top 5 scams

Tech Support Scams

This is the most common scam for seniors, preying on their low knowledge of computer software.

Source: FTC’s 2020 Protecting Older Consumers Report

They’re 5 times more likely to be a victim than younger people.

These can be initiated from an internet pop-up, email or phone call.

The pop-up looks like it’s from your computer software, such as Microsoft or Apple.

It says there’s a virus or technical fix of some kind needed straightaway.

It then:

  • Installs malware on their computer
  • Asks for personal details or even bank/card details
  • Gains remote computer access
  • Asks you to call a number and pay a fee to fix it

Or the first point of contact is a phone call or email, pretending to be tech support staff. They may even use spoof Microsoft numbers.

They offer a free security check, or again say the computer needs a technical fix, for a fee.

They can easily scare seniors into making it look like there’s something seriously wrong with their computer by running fake diagnostic tests.

Source: FTC’s 2020 Protecting Older Consumers Report

They always make the target give them remote access to their computer where they can do what they like, and usually also charge them a fee on the spot. Sometimes they even get seniors to sign up to expensive service plans.

Sweetheart Scams

Just like the rest of the world, seniors are increasingly using online dating.

Since 2013, online dating rates among adults age 55 to 64 have nearly doubled from 6 to 12%.

This allows massive potential for catfishing (someone pretending to someone they’re not).

And seniors make ideal targets due to their increased trust levels and isolation. They may have recently lost a spouse, making them particularly emotionally vulnerable.

Most senior dating sites even have a ‘widowed’ category, making it easy for scammers to hone in.

Women are more likely to be a victim than men. Since they live longer, there’s a skewed gender ratio, meaning women are more likely to be widowed and single.

And it’s big business: seniors lost a total of $56 million due to romance scams in 2018, the most out of every category.

Scammers offer emotional support, declare their love and make grand plans for the future. They communicate virtually with the excuse of distance, mostly just messaging, but always with the promise of meeting in real life ‘soon’.

Eventually comes the subtle request to ‘borrow’ some money, and they’re very clever about it. They’re rich but have cashflow issues, they’re on holiday and can’t get home, they have a family member in dire need, a death in the family requiring funeral costs, or debt problems.

Often they don’t even ask for money the first time, but hint until the victim offers. It may be a small amount at first, leading to a snowball effect. 

For example, in 2017 one 67 year old Canadian ‘met’ someone online after being widowed after 44 years of marriage. ‘Sophia’ was a Canadian but abroad on business in Malaysia.

He lost $732,000 over 19 wire transfers over 8 months. But the initial payment was just $2,000, after claiming she had banking issues whilst abroad and couldn’t access her own money.

He lost his entire life savings and went deep into debt in the hope of finally meeting his new ‘soulmate’.

As is common, he never told his family or reported it, probably due to embarrassment. It was only uncovered upon his death.

Sweepstake or Lottery Scams

Sweepstake, lottery or prize scams fool victims into believing they’ve won a lottery jackpot, sweepstake or some kind of monetary or product prize.

They can take the form of pop-ups online. Perhaps you’ve won something for being the millionth customer on a website, a loyal customer, or are just a random lucky winner.

Or it can be done via email, informing you you’ve won a lottery jackpot, using real lottery company names.

You just need to pay a small administrative or shipping fee in order to receive your winnings.

You may need to fill in your card details there and then, write a check, or wire money abroad if it’s a foreign lottery.

Sometimes you’re even sent a check, so you really think you’ve won. You cash the check and send the money, which after all is only a small portion of your winnings…only for the check to turn out to be a fake later.

Other emails are more clever…you’ve won something for free, and just need to play a game, sign up for a free trial or do a survey first.

Seniors are way more likely to be victims of sweepstakes than younger people. Sweepstake scams also make the second highest total loss for seniors, after romance scams.

And those aged 80+ lose a staggering $5,000 on average.

The US Federal Trade Commission is constantly prosecuting these types of companies, taking them out of business and attempting to recoup some of the millions of funds stolen.

2019 saw their biggest settlement of $30 million against sweepstake company Next-Gen. Next-Gen targeted seniors and had used the swindled money to purchase two luxury vacation homes, a yacht and a Bentley. The money will be used to try and refund customers.

The sad thing is because these cases normally end in settlements, the perpetrators are never actually criminally prosecuted and new ones pop up all the time.

Government Impostors

Getting an apparent email from a government figure can be extremely intimidating to seniors.

Scammers know this, and take due advantage, posing as various types of officials.

Until very recently, tax scams were the most common. Seniors receive convincing emails from the tax organization in their country, such as the IRS (US) or HMRC (UK), particularly in tax season.

The most tempting is a tax refund.

Source: IRS News Release

But they can also be verifying tax details, requesting fake tax payments, or official-looking tax notices.

Fake CP2000’s are particularly popular in the US, but scammers keep changing the game once a particular scam become known.

Clicking the links in the email can download malware, or take you to at convincing website or phone number where you give personal or financial details, or even make a direct payment.

However, 2018 saw a huge leap in social security scams for the US.

Source: FTC’s 2020 Scam Report

Social security scams are set to become the most common government impostor type.

Source: FTC’s 2020 Scam Report

Emails apparently from the Social Security Administration (SSA) usually say your social security number is suspended due to a crime or suspicious activity. They usually ask you to call a phone number urgently, where they ask you to confirm your number, thereby giving it to them.

They may even tell you your accounts are about to frozen or seized, and you therefore need to withdraw your money from your bank.

Another classic is emails from governmental medical organisations, such as Medicare.

They may offer free health checks or equipment covered by Medicare, but need to verify information to send it to you. They may require seniors to update or verify their information for a new scheme or Medicare card.

They may even send a bogus medical bill, threatening to take away their government-funded health insurance.

Since seniors are eligible for schemes like Medicare, and more likely to depend on healthcare, they’re particularly vulnerable to intimidation via these types of emails.

They represent the third highest loss for seniors, after romance and sweepstake scams.

Overall, for all government imposter scams, people 80 and over report a median loss of $2,700, around three times higher than the overall median of just $960.

Grandparent Scams

Grandparent scams prey on seniors’ caring nature and poor memory.

They get an email from someone claiming to be a family member in trouble.

70% of the time this is a grandchild, usually a grandson.

This works as seniors may have many grandchildren and struggle to remember the details of them all.

But scammers may go further and expertly impersonate them using details they found on social media.

The grandchild is in some terrible, shameful situation and desperately needs money: they’re in jail, or had a car accident whilst doing something they shouldn’t, like texting or drinking.

The grandparent is the only one they trust and can turn to, and they’re terrified of their parents finding out, so please don’t tell anyone!

Most often, they ask them to mail cash, which is of course the hardest to get back.

People aged 70+ lose a median of $9,000 sent by cash to this scam, and again the number is going up.

Preventing scams

Many of these scams may seem easy for you to avoid, but it’s clearly a completely different story for seniors, including your ageing parents/grandparents.

The question is, how do you stop them from falling prey to these without your knowledge? Even if they become a victim, chances are they won’t tell you and will struggle on silently.

First up, here’s some top tips you can show to seniors. It goes through some general tips, as well as details on exactly what to watch out for for each type of scam.

Top tips for seniors

To stay safe online, you should always:

  • Make sure you have antivirus and firewall installed, and run regular scans (get someone to help you if you’re not confident).
  • Make sure you have a password on all of your devices. Otherwise, it will disastrous if they’re ever stolen.
  • Make sure you use different, secure passwords for different accounts. If you feel uncomfortable remembering them, write them down. Statistically it’s safer to write these all down on a bit of paper somewhere, than to use the same password on all websites.
  • Install adblockers on your browser, which will reduce your risk of falling for pop-ups massively.
  • Bonus: install a VPN, which will protect you massively overall.

There are specific scams that target your age group, and the biggest weapon is awareness. Therefore, take a look at what to watch out for in each scam below.

Tech Support scams – what to watch out for

Anyone approaching you with tech support is always a fake.

  • No computer company will ever email you stating your computer has a problem. Hang up the phone immediately or delete the email.
  • You will never get a genuine pop-up telling you your computer is in trouble. Close it immediately. If you keep seeing them, get someone run a virus check.
  • If possible, get a family member or friend to install an adblocker. This will prevent you from even seeing these dangerous pop-ups.
  • It’s highly unlikely they will ever email you with anything else that requires action either, but if you’re not sure, get a family member or friend to check whether it’s genuine before doing anything.

Sweetheart scams – what to watch out for

Seniors form genuine relationships from online dating all the time, but take the following precautions to protect yourself against catfishers:

  • Be extremely wary of going on dating sites when you’re particularly vulnerable, such as being recently widowed.
  • Never put your status as ‘widowed’ on dating sites.
  • Arrange an in-person date as soon as possible. Never get into the trap of always ‘waiting’ to meet them ‘soon’ and essentially ending up in an online relationship. At the very least, they should be able to do regular video or telephone calls.
  • Set a deadline for yourself from the first point of contact, say 3 weeks. If the person keeps making excuses to meet, cut contact until they’re ready to go on a date. 
  • If a person says they’re currently abroad, this is a massive red flag. A ‘short’ trip will turn into a longer one. Again, ask them to contact you when they’re back and ready to go on an actual date.
  • If a person hints at or asks for money, they’re definitely a scammer. Tell a friend or family member and report them to the dating site. If you can’t do this, say you have a rule never to send money to someone you’ve never met. See how they react.
  • If they ask you to pay by wire transfer or gift/reload cards, this is an extreme red flag. These are the most common payment method for online dating scams, and seniors lose way more money to wire transfer than any other method.
Source: FTC’s 2020 Scam Report

Sweepstake scams – what to watch out for

Lottery wins, sweepstakes, prizes and gifts are always fake, and you will end up losing money. Stay away from this whole realm to avoid losing thousands, as many seniors do.

  • Delete all emails pertaining to lottery wins, sweepstake wins, prizes, gifts, or offers of online games. Do not engage.
  • Close all pop-up giving prizes or money away. None are genuine.
  • Install an adblocker (or get someone to do it for you). This will prevent you from even seeing these dangerous pop-ups.
  • If you’re really sure it could be genuine relating to some competition you’ve already entered, ask a trusted family member or friend first before doing anything.
  • Never pay administrative or shipping fee in order to receive your winnings. They will steal your money. Wire transfer and gift/reload cards are the top payment methods for sweepstake scams.
  • Never sign up to free trials, surveys or games in order to get something for free. They will steal your information or steal from your bank account.

Government impostors – what to watch out for

It’s extremely rare to get emails from government organisations, and most are fake.

  • If you get an email from a supposed government organisation relating to tax, healthcare or social security, do not click the link, call the number or open any email attachments.
  • If you can, get a trusted family member or friend to check it for you.
  • Call the organization on their official phone number (NOT the number in the email). If they’ve contacted you, they will have a record of it. Normally there’s a reference number in the letter that you can quote and they will recognize.
  • Do some simple checks to spot a fake email.

Here’s some easy ways to spot a fake email:

In the ‘from’ section check the stuff after the ‘@’ symbol. This should be the exact same as the website of the organization. For example, the end of the IRS’s website is ‘irs.gov’. Therefore, any email should end with ‘@irs.gov’.

In the example below, the email claims to be from Amazon, but the stuff after the “@” is not ‘amazon.com’.

It’s a totally different website, ‘smartprisonerharbor.com’.

Fake!

Here are some common examples:

  • IRS: @irs.gov
  • HMRC: @gov.uk
  • Medicare: @medicare.gov
  • NHS: @nhs.uk

Next, if there’s a phone number, check the phone number is correct by going on the official website. A fake phone number is a clear sign of spam.

Finally, you can hover your mouse (carefully!) over the link. Whatever you do though, don’t actually click it!

Alternatively, you can right-click it (not left click!), select ‘Copy link address’ from the menu, and paste the address into a word doc, draft email or notepad.

When you hover over it, the website it’s going to take to you to appears at the very bottom in gray.

The website is “parisology.createopponentpredator dot org”.

Certainly not amazon.com, as it should be.

Delete and move on.

Grandparent scams – what to watch out for

Getting an email from a family member asking for money is a very common scam (particularly grandsons), and so you should treat them as guilty until proven innocent.

  • Never volunteer any information about them. Don’t let them make you feel bad about not remembering them – this is a common trick.
  • Tell them this is a common scam and you need to verify who they are and what’s going on as much as possible. This should send most scammers running.
  • Ask them to video call, or you cannot help them.
  • Check all details. Some may be using social media details to impersonate your grandchild, but detailed fact-checking will reveal this scam to be a fake.
  • For example, contact the parent and check the grandchild’s current whereabouts.
  • Ask for their mobile number, and check this against your real grandchild’s number.
  • Next, contact the real grandchild yourself and see if they mention any email.
  • If they say they’re in jail, ask which jail and call the jail to check.
  • If they say they’re in a car accident, check the car details, accident location, ask for video evidence including showing the location, and speak to a third-party involved.
  • If everything checks out, only offer to pay to their personal bank account online or by phone, and verify the account is actually in your grandchild’s name and hometown.

Reporting scams

If you do unfortunately fall victim, please don’t feel embarassed or ashamed. These scammers are expert liars and emotional manipulators preying on your vulnerabilities, probably with years of experience.

You’re one in a long chain of victims, and the more you stay silent the more future victims they can torture at will.

Please report the scam, and if you can, tell friends and family. Awareness is the key for prevention.

To report a scam in the US, go to this online FBI form.

What family members of seniors can do

If you’re concerned about a senior in your family, there are many useful things you can do.

  • Make sure seniors follow the general tips above.
  • Educate them as much as possible on the types of scams above.
  • Enroll them in some computer classes if they’re not confident.
  • Most importantly, make it clear that you’re non-judgmental, supportive and approachable. They’re welcome to come to you if they ever come across anything they’re not sure about.
  • Try and check in with them regularly about how they’re spending their time online if you can.
  • Help them set up financial safeguards, such as putting a small amount in one bank account with a spending limit, and keeping the majority of their savings in a more secure account. There are also apps that can alert you to suspicious activity.
  • If they become a victim, don’t make them feel embarrassed, and encourage them to report it.

The below graph shows that the more educated people are about scams, the more likely they won’t even engage.

Source: Finra Foundation’s ‘What Separate’s Victims From Non-Victims’ report

This was much more effective than doing research ‘in the moment’, and shows awareness is key.

And more importantly, over half who had a third-party intervene during a scam didn’t lose money. So you really can help.

What organizations can do

Governmental organizations need to do far more to protect seniors in terms of legislation, resources and support.

Many have called for the government to change technology policies to protect seniors, just as there’s the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) for minors.

A Stop Senior Scams’ Act has been proposed, though it’s unclear how likely this is to be passed.

Often, the ones best able to stop a scam happening in the moment are the banks. Banks have been criticized for not doing enough, especially in the cases of out-of-the-blue wire transfers for large sums abroad.

In response AARP has developed a Banksafe initiative, which trains bank staff to spot scams.

The AspenTech Policy Hub also wants the FBI to change it’s scam reporting form, as they found it’s very non senior-friendly.

For example, it doesn’t let them upload conversations by screenshot, which they prefer, times out too quickly and doesn’t show a confirmation screen.

Resources for seniors are also crucial.

Currently, most people learn about scams only from new stories or word of mouth.

However, research shows that many would like to hear about them online via websites.

Source: Finra Foundation’s report

And the good news is such websites have been developed, for example:

It seems like progress is being made, albeit slowly.

Key Takeaways

In summary, seniors may be as vulnerable as young children online, and 80% of scam victims are over 65.

Seniors are vulnerable due to their lack of technical know-how, higher trust levels and isolation, and health issues such as lower cognition or poorer eyesight. Scammers also perceive them as having more savings to plunder.

Scammers prey on these vulnerabilities with specific scams.

The top 5 internet scams for seniors are:

  • Tech support scams
  • Sweetheart scams
  • Lottery or sweepstakes
  • Government impostors
  • Grandparent scams

To protect themselves, seniors should follow general internet security tips, such as installing an antivirus and adblockers. Many seniors don’t do these simple basics to their peril.

They should also make sure they have passwords on every device, and have different passwords for each website.

This may be a challenge for seniors, but they can write them down on paper if need be. Surprisingly, it’s far safer to write different passwords down on paper than to use the same one.

But most importantly, seniors should educate themselves on the basics of the above scams by reading through this article, and have supportive family members they can come to for help or advice.

Research shows these two factors alone are highly likely to prevent them from even engaging in a scam.


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