Protecting Yourself From Three Scams That Target Seniors

As members of the Baby Boom generation moves into their golden years, marketers will shower them with attention in hopes of garnering a share of their cash. Unfortunately, so will scammers.

Older Americans have always been a popular target of scammers, for a variety of reasons. They tend to have more money socked away in savings or retirement accounts than younger people. They have reached the point in their life when they're less focused on achieving, and more on giving back. Often, they're more trusting than younger generations. And now that their ranks are swelling, they are a fertile hunting ground for the unscrupulous.

Add to all of this the fact that many scams that target seniors have gone high-tech, and seniors are often less comfortable and familiar with newer technology. That gives scammers one more reason to target older people. Fortunately, seniors are also more likely to be familiar with the expression, "Forewarned is forearmed." The best defense against scammers is being aware of their tricks, like these increasingly common scams.

Telemarketing Scams That Target Seniors

According to the American Bar Association, telemarketing fraud bilks victims out of over $40 billion (yes, billion) dollars per year, and a significant portion of that comes from seniors. These scans take a bewildering variety of forms, from offers of health, life, or burial insurance, health products, and home improvement services to sweepstakes, calls from "charities," and callers claiming to be from the IRS, Microsoft, or even a grandchild in distress.

Where once upon a time the goal of scammers was simply to separate seniors from their cash, there's now a much bigger game afoot: identity theft. Be alert and protect both your money and your identity.

"Can You Hear Me?"

One recent development involves a caller who asks, "Can you hear me?" When the person receiving the call replies "yes," their response is recorded and used to "consent" to charges on a stolen credit card, phone, or utility bill. Other variations of this scam involve other questions that would likely get an affirmative answer, such as, "Are you the homeowner?" or "Are you the person who makes decisions about telephone service for your household?"

You might wonder how you can agree to pay charges if you haven't given a payment method. Because the scammer already has your telephone number, and many phone providers pass through third-party charges, it may not be necessary for you to provide anything more than that one word.

In addition, the con artist may have already gathered some of your information, like bank or credit card account numbers, through a data breach. You may not even discover the charge, but if you do and try to dispute it, the scammer can produce the recording of your voice seeming to agree to it.

If you hear a caller asking these words at the outset of a phone call, hang up, no matter how rude it might seem. If they are calling for a legitimate purpose, they will call back. If you think you might have already been tricked, scrutinize your phone, cable, and credit card statements for unfamiliar charges, and dispute any you didn't authorize. If it's claimed that you did, insist on proof.

"I'm From the Government..."

Another scam going around involves someone claiming to be from the government, calling about unpaid taxes, parking tickets, or failure to appear for jury duty or a court hearing. Most recently, there have been a spate of calls claiming to be from the IRS. The theme of the call is that you have unpaid taxes and that the government is going to take drastic action, such as seizing property, unless you pay your back taxes immediately, preferably with a credit card over the phone.

This one's easy to spot if you know what to look for: government officials, whether from the court system, the IRS, the Department of Motor Vehicles, Social Security, or some other agency, do not communicate by phone, especially to collect debts. Again, though it might seem rude, hang up. If you must say something, tell them before you hang up to communicate with you by mail.

Beware: many scammers may try to keep you talking, perhaps with the implication that you'll be in deeper trouble with the government if you don't. Remember that this is just an attempt to keep you on the line so they can get information from you that will be useful to them. Resist it.

"Grandma, Help!"

What grandparent can turn away from a grandchild in desperate need? Not many, and that's what con artists are counting on. If your grandchild called for help after having been in a terrible accident, or a doctor called on his behalf because he couldn't, you'd want to help. If your grandchild was stuck in a foreign airport or in jail, you'd do anything you could for them. These are a few of the variations on the "fake grandchild" scam, in which you're asked to wire money urgently, often without telling the child's parents so they won't worry or be angry.

A con artist may call you at random pretending to be your grandchild. If you say, "Jeremy, is that you? What's wrong?" the scammer now has your grandchild's name and may string you along for further clues. Or you may have been targeted specifically, after a criminal finds family information in an obituary or social media account.

Don't fall for the urgency, the FBI recommends. Take time to confirm it really is your grandchild. Ask for information only they would know, like their pet's name, where they were born, or their sibling's middle name. A scammer will fail the test or may hang up at this point. Ask for a phone number where you can call them back. A legitimate caller will readily provide it; a scammer will give a fake number. Then end the call and call your grandchild or their parent on their known home or mobile number.

If you wired money but it hasn't yet been collected, you can call and cancel the transaction. Once you've wired money and it's been picked up, you're out of luck, but you can file a complaint with your local police department and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).

Basic Advice for Avoiding Scams

As the public becomes more aware, criminals and con artists get more cagey. Still, there are a few basic tips you can follow to keep yourself safe from scammers:

  • If an offer seems too good to be true, it almost always is.
  • Never give any personal information, especially credit card or financial information, to someone who calls you unsolicited.
  • Beware any caller who tries to create a sense of false urgency around the action they're trying to get you to take. If they're not willing to give you time to think about it or do research, there's a reason.
  • If a caller purports to be from a charity, ask "What percentage of my donation goes to program services?" They are required by law to tell you. (Often, only about 10% goes to the cause; the rest goes to fundraising costs! Not a good use of your donation.)
  • You should never have to pay money to claim a sweepstakes prize. Never accept a "prize" for a contest you didn't enter.

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