Elder Scams: Don’t Take the Bait


Today, virtually everyone is vulnerable to fraud schemes, from teenagers searching social media to middle-aged people making online purchases and senior citizens caught up in Ponzi schemes. But financial exploitation of elderly people is especially rampant.

According to a recent study by the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), Americans lose an estimated $28.3 billion a year in elder scams, designed to steal money, assets, property or sensitive personal information. And it’s not just outsiders who are targeting this segment of the population. The study found that more than $20 billion — or 72% of the total — is being pocketed by individuals known to the victims, such as friends or family members.

If you or a loved one belong to this age group, you need to keep your wits about you. If something seems to “too good to be true,” it’s probably a scam.

Common Fraud Schemes

Consider the following six scams that are often used to target seniors, who tend to be more trusting and less tech-savvy than younger generations:

  1. Lottery and prize winnings. “You’ve just won the lottery!” A scammer may call an elderly person with the joyful news, and the senior citizen is only too happy to accept his or her good fortune — except it’s not true. Instead, the scammer typically asks the “winner” of a bogus lottery or some other prize to send money or a gift card — often worth thousands — to claim the reward. The fraudster may say the funds are required to cover processing fees and taxes.

Con artists may reference a well-known, reputable entity, such as the Publisher’s Clearing House, to convince elderly people of their authenticity. Once the money leaves a victim’s account, it’s usually gone forever.

  1. Robocalls. These automated phone calls may be designed to coerce the victim into providing valuable information that’s subsequently used for illegal means. For instance, a robocall may supposedly come from a car dealer, claiming that your warranty has expired and that you must send money promptly to renew it. Or the call could be from an insurance company requesting an additional premium payment. Scammers generally “spoof” phone numbers to make the robocalls look as if they’re originating from reputable companies.

In one particularly devious scheme, the robocall asks, “Can you hear me?” When the victim answers “yes,” the call ends, but the scammer has recorded the affirmative answer. This recording may be used for authorization of credit card charges or other purchases.

  1. Government imposters. Frequently, a scammer will contact an elderly person by phone or email, pretending to be a representative of the IRS or another government office, such as the Social Security Administration or U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

This ruse can result in various types of losses. If the impersonator obtains your Social Security number (SSN), it can be used to gain access to financial accounts and other assets. Once your identity has been compromised, it’s a painstaking process to undo the damage. All too often, the scammer is never held accountable.

Alternatively, the caller may threaten an elderly person with arrest or deportation if he or she fails to pay taxes immediately or doesn’t provide an SSN. Similarly, the scammer may threaten to cut off Social Security benefits. As with robocalls, spoofing can make it appear that the calls are coming from Washington, D.C.

  1. Tech support. Many senior citizens aren’t savvy about the latest technology — and scammers often exploit this tendency. For instance, a text on a phone or pop-up message on a computer may inform the elderly person that the device is damaged and must be immediately repaired or that it has been infected by a virus. When the victim calls the support line for assistance, the scammer demands immediate payment for services.

Likewise, you might give crooks a way to identify valuable personal information if you click on the link in a message on your phone. Or a scammer may simply contact you with a “friendly offer” to scan and repair your device — for a fee, of course.

  1. Grandchild emergencies. This one has received a fair amount of media attention. Typically, the caller refers to the victim as “Grandma” or “Grandpa” and ask if he or she knows the caller. If a grandparent responds with the name of a grandchild who the caller sounds like, the fake “grandchild” explains that there’s a crisis. Then the caller asks the grandparent to send them money immediately. Naturally, the grandchild begs the grandparent not to tell his or her parents.

In a similar con, the caller pretends to be a police officer, attorney or some other person who’s trying to assist a grandchild. The caller may ask for payment via a gift card that can’t be traced — and it’s usually unrecoverable.

  1. Dating apps and websites. Initially, dating apps and online dating services were marketed to young adults. But the use of these apps and sites are now common among the older generation, which could lead to financial trouble.

How it works: First, scammers create fake profiles to lure unsuspecting victims. Next, they build up trust through frequent messaging. Then they claim to be overseas or in a distant state and need money to come visit. Or they might ask for funds to pay off medical emergencies or some other urgent expense. The lonely victim often complies. So-called “sweetheart scams” are a long-term con. They often go on for years before the victim wises up, if ever.

Be Proactive

Here are some common-sense tips to help prevent elder scams:

Don’t divulge sensitive personal information on calls or in texts or emails. This includes passwords to accounts and credit cards.

Check bills for unauthorized charges and suspicious activity. Contact the source to confirm the reasons for any unusual charges.

Update security on phones and computers. Whenever possible, use multifactor authentication.

Never transfer money to unknown callers. Confirm the source before you make any payments.

Don’t panic if someone pressures you to make a fast decision. If you’re unsure if you’re being scammed, think logically about the caller’s request. It’s better to end the call and talk to someone you trust to confirm the authenticity of the request.

Remain Vigilant

If you or an elderly person in your family has been targeted in a scam, contact your local police department, your state’s attorney general or the National Elder Fraud Hotline at 833–372–8311. Also consider reporting the scam to the Federal Trade Commission. In addition, your financial advisors can provide valuable guidance in these stressful situations.


PKS & Company, P. A. is a full service accounting firm with offices in Salisbury, Ocean City and Lewes that provides traditional accounting services as well as specialized services in the areas of retirement plan audits and administration, medical practice consulting, estate and trust services, fraud and forensic services and payroll services and offers financial planning and investments through PKS Investment Advisors, LLC.

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Andy M. Haynie - CPA, CFE


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