Living alone can be empowering for seniors and help to maintain their sense of identity and independence. Unfortunately, it also makes them prime targets for scammers and con artists. No matter how savvy or responsible you think your family members are, it’s worth having a chat about the scams that are out there and how they can protect themselves.
Scammers target seniors via every mode possible, the phone, the internet, the mail, and even door-to-door. They can sound very legitimate (like the CRA or IRS), they can impersonate family (usually grandkids) and they prey on hopes and dreams (promising love or money) just as much as fears and weaknesses (losing a home, getting jail time or causing embarrassment or shame). Even if your loved one says they know about scams and not to worry, it helps to have a quick refresher to keep it front of mind and help them stay aware of the current scams in circulation.
Just a reminder, it is not always money they scammers are after, identity theft is also very common and sometimes seniors do a good job of protecting their cash but give away a bit to much personal information. Never give out a Social Insurance Number over the phone and don’t provide callers your address if they ask you to “confirm” it. Other red flags to watch for: asking about age or year of birth, “confirming” family members names or details, confirming or providing spousal info or the last 4-6 digits of a credit card or who you bank with or have credit cards with. If they called or contacted you and they’re asking you for the info, it sounds like it might be a scam!
Phone Scams Targeting Seniors
These calls can come in on landline phones or cell phones, which is important to note because many seniors assume that only family or people that they have given their cellphone number to have it and they might be more likely to think a scam coming in on a cell phone line could be legitimate.
The number one thing to make sure seniors understand is they should never give any of their information out on an incoming call, if they think the call is legitimate they should hang up and call the number they have for the organization – not a number the caller provides. If it is a bank calling, a travel agent, the CRA or any other organization they have a previous relationships with, ask the caller to note the account then hang up and call a number they know is for that organization (from the back of a card, from a statement or business card, for example) and confirm the request, after going through the regular security protocols. Do this even if the call display says it is the organization they claim to be – scammers use a technique called “spoofing” to make a call display show any name and number they want, so it cannot always be trusted.
Here are some common phone scams to watch for:
The timeshare scam: a caller offers to sell a timeshare that the senior owns for an upfront fee but then once the fee is paid disappears. Tip: for real estate and timeshares only pay commissions or fees AFTER the sale has cleared, never before.
Foreign lottery winner: a caller informs them they have won a foreign lottery and they just need to pay insurance on the winnings before it can be dispersed, they even have a supporting website they direct victims to, that looks official and verifies the story but it is all fake and part of the scam
Grandchild in need: a caller with a young sounding voice calls and pleads for help, they need money to get out of jail, the hospital, to get home or some other travel or emergency expense, and no one else has answered or can help and they are running out of time. There will be a heavy layer of fear and urgency and Grandparents are asked to wire money immediately to help.
Tax scams: a caller calls or leaves an automated, official sounding message from the CRA or IRS to be called back regarding unpaid taxes, which, if are not resolved immediately will result in the police arresting them or bailiffs seizing property within an hour or so.
Microsoft Service: a caller says they are calling from Microsoft or your ISP (or similar, but usually Microsoft) about updating or checking your computer or fixing problems you may have, once they have gained the victim’s trust and gain access to the computer they plan malicious software to steal information from the victim or offer to “fix the issues they found” that are not covered, for a fee.
Internet and Email Scams Targeting Seniors
Before we get into the specifics of the scams targeting seniors, it is worth reviewing some of the general scams and risks on the internet that they may fall victim to. Remind them to never download attachments or files they don’t trust or know what they are or where they come from. If an email comes in and just has a link or just has an attachment – even if it is from a sender you know, if you weren’t expecting it or they do explain in the email what it is, don’t click it. Spoofing happens with emails just like it does with call display so even if you know the email address the file or link came from, it could be a scammer spoofing their email or that has hacked their email or it could be being sent by a virus.
Catfishing – Catfishing is where he scammer lures or tricks the victim into an online relationship by using a fake persona. While sometimes it is just a cruel trick it often leads to the Catfisher asking for money to travel to see them or to get out of a bind or emergency and once they have the money disappearing. This is especially cruel as they not only steal money but break the victims heart as well.
Work from home / easy money – There are a number of these scams with lots of variations but basically they offer the victim a job or way to make money from home, during their spare time, they just have to buy a startup kit or pay for training or some other equipment to get them started. But once they buy the setup kit or pay the fee all communications stop. These can be very tricky to identify because they are presented as similar to home party or MLM programs out there that the victim might know and be comfortable with.
Cheap prescription drugs – These are terrifying as quite often if the victim goes through with buying the cheap prescription drugs they might find through internet popups or email spam, they are actually sent medication – you just have no idea what is in it or what the side-effects might be.
Virus Protection Scams – Most seniors know about the dangers of computer viruses, what they don’t know is that many of the “virus scan” or “virus alert” pop-ups they come across on the internet that they might think are there to help them, are actually part of the problem. Help them set up virus or malware protection, show them how it works then make sure they know to ‘x’ out of anything else or to at least not click on it!
Discount Travel – Everybody wants a great deal on travel and these aren’t necessarily all a scam but some travel agents and organizations are absolutely better than others and others are downright scammy. Unfortunately, the scammy ones also tend to target seniors with their emails and popups. Our tip here is to always check the third party reviews of a travel agency or organization before any money changes hands; if they are “too new” to have reviews or you can only find reviews that they feature on their site and not on third party review sites – stay away! If the travel agency has a history of not booking rooms or adding extra fees afterwards – those will usually show up in the third party review sites and you can see how often they happen and how they deal with it in the comments. Of course you wont find a travel agent or service with 100% customer satisfaction because things do happen, but you also don’t want one with more negative reviews than good.
In-Person Scams Targeting Seniors
Funeral Scam – The scammer shows up at a funeral, introduces himself to the widow or family then after developing a relationship or building trust asks for payment on outstanding debts or fees or other asks.
Woodchucks – These scammers come door to door, posing as contractors or handymen, develop relationships with seniors living alone and then charge exorbitant amounts for often-unnecessary repairs, renovations or maintenance. Once they have found a suitable mark (especially someone with memory issues) they will continue to find or suggest new work that needs done around the house, taking as much money as possible from the homeowner in the process.
These are just a small sampling of some of the scams currently in use today across North America. We also recommend you do a quick internet search on scams in your area to find regional ones we may not have mentioned. But be aware, new scams are popping up all the time, when you hear of a new one, make sure to update and equip the seniors in your life on how to identify and thwart them. Scams are much easier to prevent than they are to fix if someone becomes a victim.
Do you know of any other scams seniors or families caring for seniors should know about? Share the details in the comments so we can all be on the lookout!