Seniors: Avoid The Pain Of Falling For A Scam
Keep yourself safe and reassured with these common-sense warning signs of elder fraud
Scams and fraud cost seniors more than $3 billion annually, according to a study by the FBI.
Seniors are targeted for a variety of reasons. They’re trusting, they’re less likely to report being scammed, and they may avoid telling their families.
This is a subject that is personal for me: Before she passed away, my mother, in her 80s and living in a retirement community, was scammed at least twice and maybe more.
Attempting to outline every type of scam would be futile, because new ones are dreamed up every day. What I want to do below is educate you on the general warning signs that are typical across many types of elder fraud.
Let your phone calls go to voice mail if you don’t recognize the number
Older people were around in the days before answering machines, voice mail, and text messaging: If the phone rang, you answered it.
These days, we have caller ID. If you don’t recognize the name or the number calling, it may well be a scammer. Let the call go to voice mail. If the person calling you has a legitimate reason for doing so, they will leave a message.
On the other hand, scammers often won’t bother with voice mail. It’s usually more profitable to just hang up and move on to the next potential victim on their list.
Beware especially of phone numbers that look too much like yours
If you don’t recognize the number, but the area code and first three digits match, you may be tempted to think it’s a local number. It could be a friend, a relative, someone from the neighborhood.
Most likely, though, it is not. Phone number spoofing is ridiculously simple these days. Both legit salespeople and scammers know that people are more likely to make a purchase from someone who resembles them. That starts out with a phone number that appears to resemble your own.
Legit companies prefer common, easily traceable payment methods
The most common methods of payment online are
- Bank transfer (routing number and account number)
- Major credit card like VISA, MasterCard, American Express, or Discover
- Debit card tied to a bank account
- Payment method tied to a bank account, credit card, or bank debit card (PayPal, Venmo, Apple Pay, Google Pay)
All of these have one thing in common: They are easily traceable. A third-party auditor could come in and determine from whom the payment originated and who received the payment.
Compare these with payment methods such as
- Prepaid debit cards bought at a grocery, drugstore or convenience store
- Wire transfers
- Bitcoin or other electronic currency
For these transactions, a third-party auditor would likely be able to trace one end of the transaction — the sender or the receiver — or not both. This is why scammers prefer these payment methods.
Tech companies don’t call you out of the blue, and they don’t try to scare you
Microsoft and Apple do not call you to tell you they have detected a problem on your computer. They just don’t.
If the system software on your computer detects a virus, malware, or some other issue, most likely it will
- Automatically download a software update to address the problem; or
- Prompt you to download such an update
If the prompt advises you to call a phone number, don’t call the one that appears on the screen. Find your computer’s warranty and call the number on it instead. If your computer is out of warranty, call a local computer service shop.
If you do talk to a service representative at some point, and they are legitimate, their tone will be reassuring. They will not try to play upon your fears.
Legit prizes don’t come with a processing fee
I have first-hand knowledge of this one.
My elderly mother called me from a Cash Services desk at a supermarket. She needed to order a Western Union wire for $200 and the cashier wouldn’t sell it to her. The cashier advised my mom to call me.
Earlier, a caller had informed her that she had won $2.5 million in the Publishers Clearing House sweepstakes, even though she had never entered. He told her to send a $400 processing fee via Western Union. When she told him she didn’t have that much, the fee miraculously dropped to $200.
Legitimate processing fees, if they do exist, can be deducted from the prize and do not require cash being sent to the processor first.
A reply scammers hate to hear
Tell them, “Okay, well, just let me give my tax attorney a ring and run this by him. He handles all my financial decisions.”
If the person on the phone is calling you for a legitimate purpose, they will have no problem with you taking a little time. They will encourage you to talk the decision over with your family, your business advisors, the people you trust.
On the other hand, this reply will get most scammers to hang up, right then and there. They will cut their losses and move on to the next potential victim.
Those scammers that do remain on the line will get extremely defensive. They will adopt high-pressure tactics to urge you to complete the transaction immediately, on your own, without informing those who advise you. “Don’t tell anyone” is a huge red flag that you’re being scammed.
Scammers sell lists of prior victims to other scammers
A couple of months before my mom nearly fell victim to the Publishers Clearing House scam, she got hit by the Microsoft scam. That cost her $400 and their “fix” messed up her laptop so badly that I had to buy her a new one.
I explained to her how I knew she wasn’t a $2.5 million winner. “Mama, you’ve already fallen for one scam,” I explained. “That makes you much more likely than the average senior to fall for others. The scammers know that.”
“I hate to call you this,” I continued, “but you’re a sucker. That’s how the scammers think of you. After they make money directly off you, they make supplemental money by selling your contact information to other scammers.” She was what salespeople would call a highly-targeted lead.
If you fall for one scam, you need to be extra vigilant not to fall for others. You will definitely want to speak with someone you trust before completing any financial transaction that arises from an unsolicited phone call.
Summary and resources
You can avoid ever interacting with scammers on the phone by sending unrecognized calls to voice mail. You can also refuse to answer calls from numbers that look too much like your own.
If you are asked to use a payment method that is not easily traceable to both the sender and the receiver, that is a sign of a scam.
Tech companies do not notify you of a problem on your computer by calling you. If you do talk to service representatives at some point, they should reassure you, not scare you even more.
If you are told you won a prize, you should not have to provide any kind of processing fee.
Telling the other party you want to run it by your tax attorney, financial advisor, or relatives is a great way to scare scammers away. If they say “don’t tell anyone,” it is a scam for sure.
If you have been a victim of one scam, be aware that your name and contact information will be sold to others. Therefore, you need to be extra vigilant.
Visit the websites below for more resources:
- National Elder Fraud Hotline — 1–833-FRAUD-11
- Exploitation Resources — National Adult Protective Services Association
- Top 10 Senior Financial Scams — National Council on Aging
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