How to avoid scams that target older adults
Older adults seem to be the major target – and eventual victims – of scams. Here’s how you can identify, avoid and report scams.
Criminals use current events – and many classic tactics – to gain trust through computers, phones and the mail. Even worse, if they’re successful once, scammers will latch on and scam more because they see the potential for significant financial gain, FBI experts say.
And older adults are targeted more often because they’re trusting, polite and have many concerns that scammers can zero in on.
The old adage is true – If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. But that’s not the only tool to protect older adults from scams.
This is what you need to know and do:
How to identify scams
No two scams are alike. But most scams have several factors in common. Those include:
- A pertinent issue. Scammers know older adults face similar issues: health concerns, retirement security, care for loved ones, loneliness and depression, extended family concerns and community consciousness. So they craft messages that address these issues while still casting a wide net to make it appeal to a large audience.
- Urgency. Scammers make the issue feel pressing. They impose a short deadline for action and a negative consequence – such as losing money, time or loyalty – if you don’t act.
- Emotion. Scammers will quickly run older adults through a gamut of emotions. They might start by making you feel good with a compliment, then move you toward guilt for not acting sooner, then possibly making you scared for not doing something immediately.
- Big promises. Scammers almost always make at least one claim that sounds too good to be true – such as “free,” “no-costs other than shipping,” “pays back double your money” or “you’ll never have to worry again.”
- Unusual requests. Scammers usually make requests that people you know and trust wouldn’t – an unusual payment type, a meeting where you’ve never been, your bank numbers or other private information.
Most common types
Older adults can fall prey to scams online, over the phone, in person or via email. One way to prevent that is to be aware of the most common types of scams. Those include:
- Grandparent scams. Criminals pose as a child or grandchild, claiming they need money immediately to get out of trouble.
- Romance scams. The scammers use social media or dating websites and pretend they’re interested in a romantic relationship, capitalizing on older adults looking for companionship.
- Tax scams. Criminals might claim they’re with the IRS or another taxing authority and claim you owe taxes immediately or face jail time. Or they’ll file taxes in your name, requesting a larger refund than you’re owed and demand you pay the excess to them. Scammers also claim you have a pending refund, direct you to a fake website to get it where they gather your personal information to use for identity theft.
- Health scams. These come in a few forms. Scammers might get you to buy counterfeit or expired drugs on fraudulent online pharmacies. They might promise free medical equipment that ends up billed to you or your insurance. Or they might get you to try fraudulent treatments for current health threats.
- Tech support scams. Scammers pose as technology support representatives, offer to fix non-existent computer issues and gain remote access to your devices and sensitive information.
- Inheritance scams. Criminals say you’ve inherited money but you need to pay a fee to release the funds first.
- Charity scams. Criminals identify themselves as workers for legitimate or fictional charitable groups you might otherwise support. Then they take the money they convince you to donate.
- Home repair scams. Scammers either show up or are contracted and charge older adults before they start the home improvement work – and never do it.
How to stop scams
When older adults know the common elements of scams and the most-practiced scams, they can avoid becoming a victim.
But the best scammers persist. Fortunately, you can do a few things to stop them:
- Research the company. If an individual contacts you with a deal, research the company. If you can’t find it – and positive reviews – quickly in a Google search, end the exchange.
- Guard your personal information. Give no one your personal information such as social security or bank account numbers or passwords. If you’re compelled to give that information, check with a trusted family member that it’s OK to pass along that information.
- Consider your intentions. When you receive an unsolicited letter, email, social media contact or phone call, ask yourself: Did I request anything like this or would I pursue this on my own? If not, break off any communication.
- Pause. Remember scammers use immediacy to get what they want. If you feel rushed to act in an uncertain situation, step back. Don’t accept contact from the potential scammer for at least 24 hours. In the meantime, reach out to a person you trust for another opinion on the situation.
- Hang up. If you feel threatened, overwhelmed, over-questioned or confused with an unsolicited call, hang up. Don’t worry about being polite. Reach out to a trusted family member or friend before picking up again – if the scammer even calls back – to sort out what you’ve heard.
- Think before you click. Links in unsolicited emails are sometimes dangerous. If you don’t know who the sender is – a friend, family or trusted organization – don’t click on a link. Delete it.
- Avoid attachments and downloads. If you don’t know the sender, delete messages with attachments. Verify with known senders that they attached a safe file before you click on it.
- Update your devices. Regularly update your computer’s antivirus or cybersecurity software – or have your trusted IT pro do it.
How to report scams
If preventative measures fail, and you feel you’ve been scammed, report it immediately. Here’s the best way:
- Contact your local FBI office or make an online tip.
- Include as many details as possible, including, but not limited to:
- scammer’s name and/or company
- dates and rate of contact
- all methods of communication
- all of the scammers’ phone numbers, email addresses, social media handles, mailing addresses and payment methods you have
- where you sent money such as wire transfers and prepaid cards
- description of the instructions you were given and how you responded.
With events such as the coronavirus and elections, scams targeting older adults are on the rise. Now’s the time to be more cautious about who you accept and share information with.
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