Five Scams Aimed at Seniors and How to Help Protect Yourself

You get a call from your grandson—the one who’s always traveling—and he’s frantic, saying he got arrested in Hong Kong and he needs you to send $3,000 right away. Oh, and please don’t tell his mom. Quick: What do you do?

That’s exactly what happened to James Goepel’s 90-year-old relative. He went out and bought $3,000 worth of Home Depot gift cards and read the numbers to the scammers over the phone, thinking he was helping his grandson.

Looking back, there were all kinds of red flags that this might be a scam. He’d just seen his grandson two days earlier, so it was unlikely he was in Hong Kong.

But in the moment, when a family member is at risk, could you think that clearly? That feeling of urgency is what can take away our normal skepticism, says Goepel, a cybersecurity law professor at Drexel University. “But urgency is one of the warning signs.”

Scammers are targeting people over 65 years old more frequently than ever, and they’re using the phone, computer, and paper mail.

A recent report by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau estimated the number of incidents of financial fraud against seniors quadrupled between 2013 and 2017, with more than 3.5 million victims in 2017 alone§.

And the pain can be terrible: For seniors aged 70-79, the average loss was more than $45,000.

“The scams that are specifically targeting seniors are unbelievable,” says Don Boian, Huntington’s Cybersecurity Outreach Director. “But they make a lot of sense from a bad guy perspective.”#

Scams are built around topics that inspire anxiety, so you act more emotionally than rationally: your health, your Social Security or Medicare, the recent death of a relative. Likewise, scammers do everything they can to confuse people, and prey on people’s trust and polite manners.

Combating senior fraud takes not only good cyber hygiene (things like keeping your computers and phone software up to date) but also requires habits and behaviors that will help make you a bad target for criminals. There are dozens of scams out there targeting seniors—AARP’s Scams and Fraud Web page is a good resource—but here are some of the major types, along with tips to help keep you safer.

1. Grandparent Scam

This fraud is usually done through a phone call. Someone poses as your grandchild (or a niece or nephew) and uses names or family details pulled from social media and a frantic tone. They’ll disguise their voice and maybe hand the phone to a “lawyer” or “cop.” They’ll paint a dire scenario—they’ve been arrested or in a car accident—and need you to send cash or wire money right away.

What You Can Do:

Recognize urgency as a red flag. Phrases like “Right now” or “There’s no time” can be a clue that something is not right. Scammers are also careful to ask for small amounts that you can send quickly (the FTC says the median loss on this scam is $2,000††). But remember, real life is rarely that urgent—take a moment to think critically about how likely this scenario is. When you saw your grandson two days ago, did he mention going to Hong Kong? Then hang up and call the relative directly.

2. Social Security, Medicare, and IRS Scams

There are several variations, but typically a caller says there is a problem with your account and they need to verify information. The goal isn’t usually to take money directly from you, it’s to get personal data that they can sell on the black market, or use to file fake claims or refunds in your name. Don’t underestimate how real these can seem—they may cite actual Medicare forms, spoof an IRS phone number, and even have some of your personal information already.

What You Can Do:

Never give out personal information to a caller. No matter how pressing they make it seem (”police will be there in an hour”), you can always take the time to hang up, look up an official number, and call to verify the situation. In warning consumers about this scam, the IRS says its employees will never threaten to call the police or take legal action, or request a specific method of payment‡‡.

Don’t answer phone numbers you don’t recognize, especially early in the morning or late at night. “The caller is banking on the fact that you’re not fully awake and more likely to fall into their trap,” says Justin Lavelle, chief communications officer for background check company BeenVerified§§.

3. Technical Support Scam

A pop-up window on your computer claims that you have a virus on your computer and offers to install an antivirus program if you click a link. But instead, the link installs malicious software (malware) to get your personal information. In another version, someone calls claiming to be from a software company and convinces you to give them access to your computer so that they can provide support.

What You Can Do:

Don’t click on pop-ups, ever. “Know that large, legitimate computer companies are not going to contact you via a phone call or pop-up window for unsolicited technical support,” says Mark Fetterhoff, advisor with the AARP Fraud Watch Network helplineŁ.

Make sure your operating system is up to date and consider installing antivirus software. If those steps sound difficult, ask a family member or hire a local computer security professional.

4. Fake Financial, Investment, or Sweepstakes Emails

Sometimes these fake emails or text messages (also called phishing) promise a prize or opportunity. Sometimes they contain a threat or warning about a financial account. What they have in common is that they look like they’re coming from a legitimate source and ask you to click a link.

What You Can Do:

Be very wary of clicking links in emails or text messages. These messages are so sophisticated it may be almost impossible to tell that they are not real and that the link is actually taking you to a fake web page designed to steal your login information. Get in the habit of opening a web browser and typing in the website address yourself.

Don’t repeat passwords across accounts. If you do get tricked into giving your user name or password for a website, fraudsters will use them to try to log into your other accounts. If your password is unique for each site, they’ll probably get nowhere. For more on making passwords more secure, read this article.

5. Deceased Debt Scams

Scammers look through obituaries and target family members of the deceased, claiming there’s an outstanding debt and convincing the grieving family member to pay.

What You Can Do:

Show it to someone you trust. Scammers count on you being too emotional to think clearly. Always reach out to someone you trust—a relative or attorney—to get a second opinion.

Set up account alerts for your bank accounts so you’ll know when big withdrawals or charges occur, and consider letting family members get alerts as well. That way if someone gets into your account or you get tricked into making a payment, you’ll have another set of eyes on it. As Boian says, “There’s nothing wrong with someone looking over your shoulder—we should all have that.”

Finally, if you do fall victim to any of these scams—and lose money from an account—don’t feel ashamed. “There are a lot of scams focused on seniors, but hey, younger adults get caught up in them, too,” says Liz Loewy, COO at Eversafe, a monitoring service aimed at seniors and their families. “And the scammers are really good at what they do.”ұ

The best counterattack is to report the scam right away. The sooner you let your financial institution know, the better chance you have of stopping future thefts and maybe even recovering some of what you lost.

Huntington has tools that can help mitigate some of these cyber risks, including alerts¥, which can let you know about unusual or suspicious account activity so you can catch fraud early, and the ability to lock your credit or debit card if it is lost or stolen.

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Goepel, James. Interview by Mike Haney. May 29, 2019.

Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Suspicious Activity Reports on Elder Financial Exploitation: Issues and Trends, 3. February 2019.

§ Ibid., 12

Ibid., 4.

# Boian, Don. Interview by Mike Haney. May 31, 2019.

†† Fletcher, Emma. “New twist to grandparent scam: mail cash.” Consumer Protection Data Spotlight, December 3, 2018. Accessed May 29, 2019.

‡‡ Internal Revenue Service. Don’t Fall for Scam Calls and Emails Impersonating IRS. IRS Tax Tip 2018-38. March 13, 2018.

§§ Lavelle, Justin. Email to Mike Haney. May 28, 2019.

Ł Fetterhoff, Mark. Email to Mike Haney. May 30, 2019.

Boian, Don. Interview by Mike Haney. May 31, 2019.

ұ Loewy, Liz. Interview by Mike Haney. May 29, 2019.