6 Shocking Senior Scams — And How to Keep Your Loved Ones Safe
“My parents were very trusting and believed everything these criminals told them -- to the amount of $24,000.”
Scams are on the rise against senior citizens -- including Sarah Matthews’ parents.
Matthews, TPH editor Matt Wiley's mother, helps care for her aging parents and keep an eye on their finances. She noticed checks for thousands of dollars consistently being withdrawn from their bank account and got suspicious.
She discovered her parents were paying large amounts of money for tree trimming and home repair services to random men who periodically showed up at their front door. These men ultimately performed few -- if any -- of these services.
Matthews had her father speak with a police officer, who encouraged him to call if these “tree trimmers” returned.
A few weeks later, a concerned neighbor called her after noticing a suspicious truck outside of the home. Matthews called the cops, who arrested the man on the spot.
The man posted bond for the charges involving Matthews’ parents, but he and his accomplice didn’t stop scamming the elderly.
Both are currently incarcerated -- convicted on charges relating to other similar incidents.
Matthews’ parents are still recovering from the damage done by the scammers.
Sadly, what happened to them isn’t uncommon.
“Seniors lose $36.48 billion each year to elder financial abuse,” a 2015 True Link research study found. This figure is 12 times higher than what was previously reported by Metlife's Elder Financial Abuse Study in 2011.
Scams start small and easily go unnoticed, but can quickly add up.
“A senior who lost as little as $20 in a year to exploitation could be expected to lose $2,000 a year to other types of fraud,” according to True Link.
To keep your elderly loved ones safe, read on to find out the top ways seniors are scammed, how to avoid those scams -- and what to do if they fall victim to one.
6 Senior Scams You Need to Know About
The kit includes a list of six of the most popular scams that target the elderly.
This type of scam can include phone calls, snail mail and emails. Scammers will send out official-looking emails or letters, then stage a follow-up call to victims, asking for updated information, such as a password or account numbers.
With that information in hand, scammers will either charge seniors’ bank accounts or attempt to assume their identities.
Senior citizens could also receive phone calls from people trying to use deceptive tactics to sell them product. A “salesperson” will use complex wording and hidden fees to charge seniors an extra $20 or so.
Sadly, this isn’t illegal.
2. Fake Charities
Retirees will get a call from someone saying they represent a charity, asking for a donation.
However, the scammer isn’t actually raising money for any charity and ends up just pocketing it.
Seniors will get an official-looking check in the mail. An accompanying letter may tell them they won a contest, but asks them to send back a few hundred -- or thousand -- dollars for processing.
The check could even look like an IRS tax refund.
They’ll ask the victim to send back a portion of the money and let them keep the rest.
The scam happens two weeks later, when the check bounces and the senior becomes liable for all of the money.
4. Identity Theft
All a criminal needs to steal an identity is a call asking for the last four digits of a senior’s Social Security number.
The scammer can then can match that information up to the rest of what they know about their victims, like their name, address and phone number.
Scammers can use the stolen identity to open new credit cards or loans and rack up debt -- and the senior will end up footing the bill.
Scammers could also charge current credit cards, usually for small amounts that go unnoticed by the account holder.
5. Health Care Fraud
Scammers will figure out what medical issues a senior has and promise to send relevant medication or supplies if the seniors provide insurance information. The scammers will then use that info to assume the victim’s identity.
This is a special type of fraud known as medical identity theft. Patients can end up getting billed for prescriptions or services they didn’t use, making the senior liable for medical debts incurred by the scammer.
The FTC suggests always checking the details of each bill seniors receive and making sure the provider and date of service match up to the care they actually received.
6. Financial Exploitation
Financial exploitation takes many forms, including telemarketing or “home repair” scams.
As mentioned earlier, scammers sometimes show up at seniors’ homes, offering to provide services and then overcharging them -- whether the work was done or not.
Scammers also get seniors to sign up for long-term securities or stocks, anticipating the victims either won’t look at or “understand the fine print,” according to the Senior Fraud Protection Kit.
Seniors can get conned into buying securities or stocks that won’t mature for another 20 years. If the senior needs the money before the securities mature, they’ll pay penalty fees that end up in the scammers’ pockets.
6 Steps to Keep Seniors Safe from Scammers
If you’re looking for ways to keep your loved ones safe, these tips will help make them less vulnerable to scams and fraud.
1. Add Phone Numbers to the Do Not Call Registry
Sales calls should stop within 31 days of a number being registered, according to the Federal Trade Commission.
“A person who receives just one telemarketing phone call per day is likely to experience three times as much financial loss as someone who receives no or only occasional telemarketing calls,” according to True Link’s study. Make sure you register those phone numbers!
If they still receive sales calls while on the registry, hang up and submit a complaint to the FTC.
One thing to remember about this registry is it only stops sales calls. It doesn’t put limits on charitable, political or survey calls.
2. Keep Information Private
“The best rule of thumb is to never provide information in a phone call that you did not initiate,” the Senior Fraud Protection Kit states.
Make sure the senior knows to never give personal information or money over the phone. They also shouldn't “send any information through the mail to anyone who you don’t know, no matter what they’ve offered or promised.”
This includes sending checks or a “deposit” to companies in order to claim a prize or accept an offer to work from home.
3. Check the Better Business Bureau
Before the senior acts on any offers, payments, donations or investments, check the BBB’s website for information on the company.
Be especially cautious of letters and calls that look like they’re from the Social Security Administration or the IRS. Tax fraud is the number one scam despite efforts to stop them, according to the BBB.
4. Keep Their Mail Safe
If a senior pays their bills via mail, don’t leave it sitting in the mailbox.
Take the payment to the post office or a freestanding postal service mailbox instead of leaving it laying around where it could potentially be stolen.
Opt for online bill statements -- it’s safer and more convenient than mailing in payments every month.
5. Remain Cautious and Ask Questions
Ask any calling salesperson for their name, business address, phone number and business license number. Verify this information before conducting any business with them, as scammers will often provide fake names and license numbers.
Don’t blindly trust people -- scammers can get outrageous, even claiming they’re a “law enforcement official trying to solve a crime that involves you, and they ask for personal information,” The Home Instead Fraud Checklist states.
Make sure seniors won’t agree to anything they don’t fully understand.
Never respond to sweepstakes, prize or lottery letters and phone calls. These are all scams to get personal information.
6. Stay Safe Online
Only make purchases from websites known to be safe and legitimate. If the safety of the site is questionable, do some research to make sure it isn’t a scam.
Educate seniors on what spam emails look like -- and be sure they don’t respond to them. Personal information should never be given out via email, especially account or credit card numbers.
What Happens If Your Loved One is Scammed?
What happens if they end up getting scammed and losing money? How do you report fraud against seniors?
The first thing to do is file a police report. You’ll need a copy of the report when the fraud is reported to credit companies.
Close any accounts affected by the scam. Call the banks, explain what happened and file a fraud report if any transactions were charged to the account.
File a complaint with the FTC. It helps with fraud investigations by collecting complaints and sharing them with local police forces, credit companies and other government agencies.
If the scam involved credit card charges, report the fraud to the three major credit bureaus. Contacting all three may seem like a hassle, but it’s the only way to know the fraudulent activity will be quickly reflected on the account.
Report any identity theft to the FTC’s Identity Theft website -- this includes new accounts being opened in the senior’s name, charges to current accounts or even false medical services. The FTC offers comprehensive steps to take depending on how the victim was affected.
A Final Piece of Advice: Be Aware
The Baby Boomer generation was “raised to be polite and trusting,” the FBI says in its fraud against seniors section.
“Con artists exploit these traits, knowing that it is difficult or impossible for these individuals to say “no” or just hang up the telephone,” it continues.
Above all, awareness is key.
Make sure seniors are aware of the abundance of scams out there, and educate them on ways to protect themselves and their finances.
Your Turn: Do you know any senior citizens who have gotten scammed? How did you handle it?
Jacquelyn Pica is an Editorial Intern at The Penny Hoarder.