Financial scams targeting the elderly can be devastating, leaving older adults in a vulnerable position and without time to recoup their losses.
Older adults lose an estimated $3 billion each year to financial scams.
Learn how to identify and stop the top 10 financial scams targeting seniors.
Financial scams targeting seniors are prevalent and costly. The FBI estimates that seniors lose more than $3 billion each year to fraudsters. Scammers go after seniors because they believe older adults have a significant amount of money sitting in their accounts.
But it’s not just wealthy seniors who are targeted. Low-income older adults are also at risk of financial abuse. And it's not always strangers who perpetrate these crimes. Over 90% of all reported elder abuse is committed by an older person’s own family members, most often their adult children, followed by grandchildren, nieces and nephews, and others.
Financial scams often go unreported or can be difficult to prosecute, so they’re considered a “low-risk” crime. However, they're devastating to many older adults and can leave them in a very vulnerable position with little time to recoup their losses.
Learn how to identify and stop the most prominent scams so you can protect yourself and your loved ones from financial fraud.
1. Government impostor scams
Government impostors call unsuspecting victims and pretend to be from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), Social Security Administration, or Medicare. They may say you have unpaid taxes and threaten arrest or deportation if you don’t pay up immediately. Or they may say your Social Security or Medicare benefits are in danger of being cut off if you don’t provide personal identifying information (that can then be used to commit fraud). Government impersonators often “spoof” the actual phone numbers of the government agency, or call from the same zip code (202 for Washington, DC).
2. The grandparent scam
The grandparent scam is so simple and so devious because it uses one of older adults’ most reliable assets, their hearts. Scammers will place a call to an older person and say something along the lines of: “Hi Grandma, do you know who this is?” When the unsuspecting grandparent guesses the name of the grandchild the scammer most sounds like, the scammer has established a fake identity without having done any background research. Once “in,” the fake grandchild will ask for money to solve some unexpected financial problem (overdue rent, car repairs, jail bond) and will beg the grandparent not to tell anyone. Because scammers ask to be paid via gift cards or money transfer, which don’t always require identification to collect, the senior may have no way of seeing that money ever again.
3. Medicare/health insurance scams
Every U.S. citizen or permanent resident over age 65 qualifies for Medicare, so there is rarely any need for a scam artist to research what private health insurance company older people have in order to scam them out of some money. In these types of scams, perpetrators may pose as a Medicare representative to get older people to give them their personal information, or they will provide bogus services for elderly people at makeshift mobile clinics, then bill Medicare and pocket the money. Medicare scams often follow the latest trends in medical research, such as genetic testing fraud and COVID-19 vaccines.
4. Computer tech support scams
Computer technical support scams prey on people’s lack of knowledge about computers and cybersecurity. A pop-up message or blank screen usually appears on a computer or phone, telling you that your device is compromised and needs fixing. When you call the support number for help, the scammer may either request remote access to your computer and/or that you pay a fee to have it repaired. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) found that seniors who fell for this scam lost an average of $500 each to computer tech support scams in 2018.
5. Sweepstakes & lottery scams
This simple scam is one that many are familiar with, and it capitalizes on the notion that “there’s no such thing as a free lunch.” Here, scammers inform their mark that they have won a lottery or sweepstakes of some kind and need to make some sort of payment to unlock the supposed prize. Often, seniors will be sent a check that they can deposit in their bank account, knowing that while it shows up in their account immediately, it will take a few days before the (fake) check is rejected. During that time, the criminals will quickly collect money for supposed fees or taxes on the prize, which they pocket while the victim has the “prize money” removed from his or her account as soon as the check bounces. Unlike some of the other scams noted here, lottery and sweepstakes scammers can sometimes collect thousands of dollars from their unsuspecting victims.
6. Robocalls/phone scams
Robocalls take advantage of sophisticated phone technology to dial large numbers of households from anywhere in the world. Robocallers use a variety of tactics to cheat their victims. Some may claim that a warranty is expiring on their car/electronic product and payment is needed to renew it. One popular robocall is the “Can you hear me?” call, where when the senior says yes, the scammer hangs up after recording their voice, thus obtaining a voice signature to authorize unwanted charges on items like stolen credit cards.
7. Romance scams
As more people use the Internet for dating, con artists see an opportunity to find their next victim. Romance scammers create elaborate fake profiles, often on social media, and exploit seniors’ loneliness for money. In some cases, romance scammers may (or pretend to) be overseas, and request money to pay for visas, medical emergencies, and travel expenses to come visit the U.S. Because they drag on for a long time, romance scammers can get a lot of money from a senior—the FTC found that in 2019 alone, seniors lost nearly $84 million to romance scams.
8. Internet and email fraud
While using the Internet is a great skill at any age, the slower speed of adoption among some older people makes them easier targets for automated Internet scams that are ubiquitous on the web and email programs. Pop-up browser windows simulating virus-scanning software will fool victims into either downloading a fake anti-virus program (at a substantial cost) or an actual virus that will open up whatever information is on the user’s computer to scammers. Their unfamiliarity with the less visible aspects of browsing the web (firewalls and built-in virus protection, for example) make seniors especially susceptible to such traps.
Phishing emails and text messages may look like they’re from a company you know or trust. They may look like they’re from a bank, a credit card company, or an online store. Phishing emails request your personal information, such as a log-in or Social Security number to verify your account, or ask that you update your credit card payment. Then they use that information to steal your personal and financial information.
9. Elder financial abuse
Unlike many of the other scams, elder financial abuse is carried out by someone a senior knows. This can be a family member, friend, power of attorney, or caregiver. These trusted individuals try and gain control of a senior’s money, assets, and credit. They also may withhold needed care in order to retain control over the person and their assets. Seniors who have a disability or cognitive impairment (such as dementia) may be at particular risk.
10. Charity scams
Charity scams rely on seniors’ goodwill to pocket money they claim they’re raising for a good cause. Some scammers may use a name similar to a legitimate charity. They often capitalize on current events, such as natural disasters, and may set up a fundraising page on a crowdsourcing site, which don’t always have to means to investigate fraud. Charity scammers may insist you donate immediately, sometimes with a payment method that should be a red flag—e.g., gift cards or money transfer.
If you suspect you’ve been the victim of a scam…
Don’t be afraid or embarrassed to talk about it with someone you trust. You are not alone, and there are people who can help. Doing nothing could only make it worse. Keep handy the phone numbers and resources you can turn to, including the local police, your bank (if money has been taken from your accounts), and Adult Protective Services. To obtain the contact information for Adult Protective Services in your area, call the Eldercare Locator, a government sponsored national resource line, at: 1-800-677-1116, or visit their website at: https://eldercare.acl.gov.
You can also report scams online to the Federal Trade Commission.