Finance 101 How to Help Seniors Avoid Being the Victims of Fraud

by Jackie Lam | November 14, 2022

Scams targeting older Americans are becoming more common — and show no signs of stopping.

These scams might be in the form of a call or an email about a too-good-to-be true business deal, a grandchild in danger or an alluring romantic prospect.

According to 2021 data from the FBI's Internet Crime Complaint Center, 92,000 Americans over the age of 60 reported losses of $1.7 billion due to fraud in 2021 — a 74% spike from 2020.

"Scammers are actively targeting elderly Americans because they believe them to be more trusting, less confrontational, and thus, more susceptible to fraud," says Kenneth Conner, vice president, scam policy and communications, Citi. “These cyber criminals use psychology and other tactics to get them to send funds."

If you have older loved ones that you believe to be vulnerable, the good news is there are ways you can help them to protect their accounts and personal information from fraudsters. It starts with awareness.

Below are four scams commonly aimed at older Americans, and how to respond when that suspicious call, text or email arrives.

1. Phishing scams

How they work: Cyber criminals frequently impersonate legitimate companies or government agencies (such as the IRS or Social Security Administration) in the hopes of getting someone to click a link, download a file or share sensitive information.

"The reason these scams are so effective is because they look real, especially to an older population who might not be as tech savvy to recognize the malicious attack," says Lisa Plaggemier, executive director of the National Cybersecurity Alliance (NCA).

What to do: Sit down with your loved ones and explain how to recognize if an email is legitimate. According to Plaggemier, telltale signs of fraud include: misspelled words; variations in the company name or email address; a poorly written message; urgent demands for personal information or money; and suspicious attachments.

Government organizations will not reach out over the phone.  "They will write via mail on their official letterhead if there is really an issue," says Susan Zaar, senior analyst at Kuma, LLC, a global privacy and security consulting company.

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The reason these scams are so effective is because they look real, especially to an older population who might not be as tech savvy to recognize the malicious attack.
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2. Bank impersonation scams

How they work: The increase in digital banking during the pandemic led to a surge in bank impersonators. These scammers pretend to be from one's bank, hoping to acquire valuable, personal information. They might ask the account holder to move their money to "protect it." The scammer may reach out via phone call, text or email.

According to Conner, there has been a notable uptick in bank impersonation via texts — so it's important to be extra cautious when messages from unknown senders are received.

What to do: Let vulnerable adults in your life know that they should only contact their bank via a verified phone number from the bank, recommends Conner. This number is usually listed on the back of a debit or credit card. Advise them to be wary of caller ID. "Scammers can manipulate how a number comes through to you," he says. Help them set up a spam call blocker with a spam protector app.

If there are any questions, help them call their bank directly. Senior citizens should also consider granting account access to a trusted loved one who can help them keep an eye on financial transactions.

A man reviews documents in front of his computer screen

3. Tech support scams

How they work: Consumers may be lured in by a tech support scam when a cyber criminal reaches out and assures them that they can protect their computer against viruses. The truth is, they peddle bogus services and will try to steal a credit card number.

These scammers might install malware, which gives them access to everything on the computer. Scammers attempt this with an unsolicited call or email from tech support, or a random pop-up that appears on users’ screens.

What to do: Talk about the perils of clicking on unsolicited emails or pop-up windows. Advise your loved ones not to click on these pop-ups and not to open suspicious emails. They should never provide access to their computer to someone who randomly contacts them. Help them set up a pop-up blocker, which can stop pop-ups from appearing on their screen entirely. 

4. Romance or family-member-in-trouble scams

How they work: In a "sweetheart scam" the fraudster reaches out via phone or email or through an online dating app. They spend time getting to know their potential victim, making it seem as though they share the same interests. The victims are led to believe that they have found their perfect match.

But it’s too good to be true. Once trust is established, the scammer will look for a way to convince the victim to send money. Maybe a personal emergency has come up, or they want to visit in person and need funds for a flight.

"Many older Americans experience isolation and loneliness in a normal year and seek out companionship through different methods," says Conner. "During COVID-19, this isolation and loneliness was extremely intensified and led to some individuals letting down their guard."

A variation of this scam is when a criminal impersonates a family member in crisis and requests the immediate transfer of funds to help resolve the situation. Here too, the scammers are appealing to the emotions of their victims. These scammers can be very convincing. They have often done research to better impersonate family members or close friends and build trust. Always verify an unusual request by reaching out to your loved ones or acquaintances independently. Always be wary of requests for cash, gift cards, or funds transfers.

A woman reviews documents in front of her computer screen

What to do: Advise your older family member or friend to decline online or in-app friend requests from people they don’t know. And they should never, under any circumstances, share personal information or money with someone they have not met in real life. "Recognize the red flags to understand what romance scams are," Conner says. "Have them speak to their friends and family frequently about any new potential partners."

"Scammers are experts at their trades,” says Conner. "Knowing when to pause and ask for help is critical to stopping them.” Remind your older relative or friend that a trustworthy company or person will not pressure them to respond right away.

Try some role playing with the person you wish to protect by practicing how to cut off a call or other correspondence with a scammer. Create a simple script and keep a copy of it next to your loved ones’ computer, taped to the back of their phone or on a card in their bag or pocket. It can be as simple as: “I am ending this conversation at this point, and I won’t be responding to any additional contacts. I wish you a good day.”

If a request seems unusual or suspicious, there is a chance it could be a scam — so tell the seniors or other vulnerable individuals in your life that they should trust their instincts. If they need help with any of these protective measures, let them know that they can always ask you to brainstorm solutions for any suspicious calls or communications that come their way.

Print this list to help the seniors in your life respond when a suspicious call, text or email arrives. Have them add important numbers and keep in a handy spot near their computer or phone.

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Advise your older family member or friend to decline online or in-app friend requests from people they don’t know.
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Illustrations on how to protect yourself from scams

Protect yourself from scams

Here are some tips to help avoid email scams and phone fraudsters. Print them out and keep in a handy spot near your computer or phone. 

  1. Unknown caller: Let calls from unknown numbers go to voicemail. If you answer and feel pressured, nervous or confused, end the call immediately. Call a family member or friend for advice — even if the caller says not to.
  2. Review phone contacts: Designate which contacts are your ‘favorites’ (family, friends, doctor, pharmacy), and set up your phone so that all other contacts go to voicemail.
  3. Resist the click: Avoid clicking on unusual pop-up windows on your computer or phone. Set up a pop-up blocker to stop scam messages from appearing.
  4. If fraud happens, report it: If you’ve been targeted by a scammer, inform your bank or credit card company right away. Then, contact the FTC at ReportFraud.gov and Adult Protective Services at eldercare.acl.gov
  5. Protect those passwords: Create strong, unique passwords to secure data and information. Use a password manager to generate strong passwords. Always lock devices with a password.
  6. Recognize the red flags: Scammers often play on their target’s emotions and provoke fear. They will ask for money or personal information and insist that you act now. They may ask you not to tell anyone.
  7. Set up two-factor authentication: Take an extra step to protect data and set up authentication via an app with your financial or credit card institutions.
  8. When in doubt, ask for help: If you think you’re being scammed, end all communication with the suspected scammer immediately and call a trusted friend or relative. Then, contact your bank so they can help you secure your account.
Jackie Lam

is a Los Angeles, CA-based personal finance writer and an AFC® accredited financial coach. She is passionate about helping freelance creatives design money systems on irregular income, gain greater awareness of their money narratives and overcome mental and emotional blocks.