The elderly lost more than $600 million to scams last year, according to figures from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).
These ruses cover a broad range of schemes, according to the American Association for Retired Persons (AARP), which breaks down the FTC’s data to show just how seniors are being swindled out of their money.
In this article, I’ll outline the methods criminals are using to defraud older people. I’ll also share tips from money expert Clark Howard and Team Clark on ways to prevent fraud.
9 Scams Tricking Seniors Out of Their Money
Now let’s take a look at the costliest scams for the elderly, according to the AARP.
1. Romance Scams: $139 Million in Losses
Clark’s Consumer Action Center (CAC) receives calls, from time to time, from people who have fallen for romance scams.
“I call these the ‘loneliness scams,’” says CAC Director Lori Silverman, “because the person on the other side is seeking a relationship and wants to believe this is real.”
How to prevent it: Lori says to look for signs: dollar signs.
“If they’re asking for money that’s a big clue,” she says. “Especially if they all of the sudden say they need money to get to the U.S. or something like that.”
2. Prizes, Sweepstakes and Lotteries: $69 Million in Losses
The name of the most well-known sweepstakes brand — Publishers Clearing House — is often used by criminals to dupe unsuspecting people.
If you’re asked to pay a fee upfront to collect your prize, that’s a telltale sign that something’s wrong.
How to prevent it: “Anyone who says, ‘You’ve won. Now pay us,’ is always scammer. Period,” says the FTC.
3. Business Impostors: $65 Million in Losses
One popular impostor scam involves a crook pretending to be a company executive or payroll employee asking for sensitive information such as a copy of a W-2.
The criminal can then use that information to file a bogus tax return, according to this warning from the Internal Revenue Service.
How to prevent it: Never give your personal information to anyone you don’t know over the phone or via email or text.
This scam is popular around tax time but could pop up any time of the year.
4. Government Impostors: $58 Million in Losses
Criminals pretending to represent government agencies continue to be a problem, warns the Social Security Administration (SSA). These crooks typically ask for your personal information so they can gain access to your finances.
How to prevent it: If you get a phone call from someone claiming to be from the SSA or another government agency, and you have your doubts, hang up the phone immediately. Federal government workers rarely use the phone to communicate official information.
If you think there’s a chance the call was legitimate, you can call the federal agency’s published phone number to follow up.
5. Investments: $47 Million in Losses
Seniors looking to grow their savings are especially susceptible to investment scams.
“Spend some time checking out the person touting the investment before you invest — even if you already know the person socially,” says the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission’s Guide for Seniors.
How to prevent it: The SEC says, “Check out the disciplinary history of an investment professional quickly — and for free — at Investor.gov.”
6. Tech Support: $37 Million in Losses
Older folks who aren’t computer savvy make easy targets for criminals.
These scammers will call you and tell you they work for Microsoft or some other tech company and that your computer needs a software upgrade.
If you give them access to your computer, they could download a malicious program that can steal your personal information.
“At best the scammers are trying to get you to pay them to ‘fix’ a nonexistent problem with your device or software,” according to a Microsoft support page. “At worst they’re trying to steal your personal or financial information.”
How to prevent it: Never give your personal information to anyone you don’t know. Add your landline or cell phone number to the federal DoNotCall.gov list (or call 1-888-382-1222 from the phone you want to put on the Do Not Call list).
7. Online Shopping: $33 Million in Losses
Because so many fake websites can look legitimate, accidentally giving your financial information to a crook is easier than ever to do these days.
Buying from a fake site can happen to anyone. Team Clark’s own Lori, who deals with consumer issues every day, says she fell victim once — just by not paying close attention.
“Looking back there were a lot of red flags,” she says. “I was on the original site when shopping, but when I decided to quickly purchase the items, I ended up on the fake site.”
8. Family/Friends in “Trouble”: $21 Million in Losses
Clark says, “Here’s how these scams typically play out: You get an e-mail saying that a relative has been injured in an accident, usually somewhere overseas, and they need money for medical treatment. Or someone calls, claiming to be your relative, saying they’re in jail in a foreign country and need bail money.”
Here’s how a typical conversation might go:
The phone rings and the senior picks up.
Scamster: (in a low tone) Grandma?
Senior: Is that you, Jimmy?
Scamster: Yes, it’s me and I’m in trouble. I’m in jail. I need you to wire money so I can get out.
“Once the money is taken, you’ll never see it again,” Clark says.
How to prevent it: According to the AARP, ask certain questions that only the family member would know the answer to, such the name of a family pet.
“Do say you’ll call right back, then call your grandchild’s usual phone number,” says the AARP.
Clark also advises that you should tell your aging relatives to always call or text you to verify there’s an actual problem. “99.9% of the time, you’ll find out that it’s just a scam,” Clark says on his podcast.
9. Timeshare Sales: $17.4 Million in Losses
Scams involving timeshare sales and resales accounted for $17.4 million and $13 million respectively, according to the AARP.
Clark has long been of the opinion that timeshares are generally a bad investment.
“Even if you love your timeshare, anything you buy that is hard to ever sell is not a valid product in a market,” he says. “There should be a market both to buy and sell something. Timeshares, sadly, are good on the buying side — you can buy them very easily — but they’re bad on the selling side.”
How to prevent it: Don’t believe anyone who says they can get rid of your timeshare easily, Clark says.
“They charge you huge fees upfront and say they’re going to get you out of your timeshare, guaranteed,” he adds. “The only guarantee is that you’ve paid them big money upfront — often with no results — and you’re still obligated to that timeshare.”
Because so many of the scams targeting seniors originate over the phone, Clark says it’s best to have a plan in place about suspicious calls. His strategy is simple but effective.
“Consider following my rule,” he says. “It’s a simple rule: If I don’t recognize the number as being from someone I know, I do not answer the call.”
Clark says if you have siblings, it’s a good idea to cooperate on checking in on your parents and other elderly relatives.
“Some families find it’s a good plan to divide up responsibilities when you have elderly parents: One kid takes them shopping, another entertains them, and a third handles money issues,” Clark says. “Regardless of how it’s handled, be aware and be present in the financial lives of your elders.”