Crimes Against Older Adults: Scams and Fraud

This article reviews why so many scams target older people, what scams look like, warning signs to watch for, laws about scams, and how to report a scam.

Many scams have become so sophisticated that they look, sound, and feel exactly like the company you believe you are dealing with. Even tech-savvy people can fall for these scams. Scammers have been known to supply law enforcement badge numbers and threaten jail time or financial exploitation if you do not cooperate.

There are psychological reasons why scams work. Often, victims of fraud want the scam to be true. From winning a prize to trying to avoid a crime, many people will follow orders if they believe it helps them. Unfortunately, these scams often target vulnerable people, like senior citizens, who scammers see as easy targets.

Why Scammers Target Seniors

Scammers often are trained to target older adults because they can be:

  • Unfamiliar with technology or the fact these scams exist
  • Lonely (living alone/little contact with others)
  • Financially sound, with bank accounts that house their life savings
  • Vulnerable, with undiagnosed or progressively worsening physical or mental ailments

The FBI closely monitors current scams and offers a realistic look at why scams often target older victims. It may fall on you to keep an eye on your older relatives to watch for any elder fraud scams targeting their finances or well-being.

What Telemarketing and Email Scams Look Like

Whether by email or phone, scams are designed to scare or entice someone into taking fast action. Scammers may ask seniors for debit/credit card numbers or other information that can lead to financial abuse. Some even involve an individual pretending to be someone else to extract money. This is called an imposter scam. The Justice Department keeps an updated list of the most common scams, including:

  • Tech support or IT scams
  • Drug smuggling scams
  • Dating sites or romance scams
  • Lottery scams or sweepstakes scams
  • IRS and tax scams
  • Grandparent scams

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) provides real examples of what telemarketers may say to convince someone to hand over information. Statements like "this deal won't last" or "your finances are at risk" should raise red flags when you hear them. Other examples of common scams include:

  • Someone calls and claims that a loved one has been arrested, and a credit card needs to be provided over the phone to post bail.
  • Someone sends a message via social media pretending to be a friend or family member asking for money or electronic gift cards.

If the scam is via email, you should pay close attention to the language used. For example, there may be typos, strangely worded sentences, or urgent statements that seem out of place.

A good rule of thumb is to be extra careful if a phone call or email asks for money — these are almost always scams.

What Is the Worst That Can Happen?

Scams can devastate people's finances. There are cases of life savings being stolen and even telemarketing medical scams that take advantage of Medicare and other health care benefits. These scams are also endlessly creative. Some are even designed to take small amounts from unsuspecting people, hoping no one will notice.

Warning Signs for Family Members

Pay attention if your parent, grandparent, or loved one mentions anything that sounds like a scam. It can be as simple as them saying a call or email confused them or mentioning a new friend or caregiver you do not know. Some people will flat-out tell you they are excited about a prize they won, a person they helped, or their new relationship.

Things can become complicated when your loved one truly believes the scam is real or becomes forgetful about these scams happening. This leads to difficult conversations or arguments when you tell them to stop.

If you have access to credit cards or accounts, setting up fraud or high-spending alerts may be a good idea to help you keep track. Monitoring vulnerable adults' calls or emails can help stop some scams in their tracks.

Ultimately, seeking a power of attorney is the only way to prevent someone from sending money or supplying private information. You can get DIY power of attorney forms for a small fee.

How To Talk to Your Older Adult Loved One About Scams and Fraud

Starting a conversation about scams with your older loved one is important. Share common scam information and stress staying informed. Encourage caution with unsolicited calls and set up safeguards like call screening and secure passwords to prevent fraud. This helps them to avoid falling victim to scams. These discussions are not always easy, but they may be vital.

The Law Behind Older Adult Scams

We have legal protection from scams under U.S. laws and Federal Trade Commission (FTC) regulations:

  • U.S. Code Unannotated Title 18 Crimes and Criminal Procedure Section 1341Legal protection from frauds and swindles
  • Federal Trade Commission (FTC): An organization that enforces the U.S. laws in cooperation with the Better Business Bureau (BBB) and the FBI.

How To Report a Scam

If you suspect your loved one has opened or responded to an email or telemarketing scam, further steps may not be needed. In many cases, you can block the email or phone number, and the contact will cease.

However, suppose your loved one gives out personal information, such as credit card numbers or Social Security numbers. In that case, you may want to work with credit card companies or banks to stop any financial scams or identity theft. This interactive resource from the Department of Justice can help determine the threat level of the scam and how you should report the incident.

After these urgent protections are in place, you may want to contact an older adult law attorney to represent your loved one's rights. Your attorney can work toward legal protection from identity theft or ensure financial crimes are pursued in court.

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Can I Solve This on My Own or Do I Need an Attorney? 

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  • Cases with criminal actions are rarely cut and dry
  • Get customized advice and ask your legal questions
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