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Scams that Target Seniors

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Financial scams targeting seniors have become so prevalent that they’re now considered “the crime of the 21st century.” Why? Because seniors are thought to have a significant amount of money sitting in their accounts. Additionally, seniors tend to be trusting and are willing problem-solvers.

Scams targeting older Americans are perpetrated in person, on the telephone and, increasingly, on the Internet. Frauds involving identify theft, Medicare, health insurance, prescription drugs, reverse mortgages, sweepstakes, home repairs, romance and investments abound.

The vast majority of cases of elder exploitation involve family members, aides and other trusted people. But strangers, too, prey on a population they see as more vulnerable and trusting.

Common Scams

Here are some common scams and frauds that victimize seniors.

Distraction Scams

Someone knocks at your door and wants to talk about the fence in your backyard. While you're out back, an accomplice takes advantage and robs your house. There are all sorts of scams that are opportunities either for people to case the senior’s house or to get the senior out of the house long enough for the TV and the jewelry to go out the other door.

Home Repair Scams

Beware of people who knock on your door and offer home repair services. Some are casing your home to rob you later. Others will overcharge for a supposed service that either isn't performed or is done poorly. Remember that legitimate contractors rarely solicit door to door, and you don't want to hire anyone to work on your house until you've checked licenses and references.

Computer Tech Scams

A caller pretends to be a representative from Microsoft, McAfee or another tech company. They may seek remote access to your computer for "tech support," ask for credit card numbers or direct you to a website to enter personal details. This is always a scam. You may also get similar solicitations via email.

IRS Scams

Scammers will call a taxpayer saying money is due and demand immediate payment via prepaid debit card, threatening arrest, deportation or loss of your driver's license. If you have caller ID, the number may even show up as IRS. Callers threaten arrest if you don't pay.

A variation of the IRS scam has the caller saying he is from the sheriff's office, clerk of courts or other agency, threatening arrest if the target doesn't pay for an infraction such as missing jury duty. The caller demands payment immediately, via wire transfer or a pre-paid card, which is a telltale sign of a scam.

Remember, the IRS does not use unsolicited email, text messages or any social media to discuss your personal tax issue. They will never demand immediate payment and they do not accept gift cards for payment. You should always check with the IRS before you pay any money.

Lottery and sweepstakes Scams

Someone approaches the victim in a public place, saying she has won the lottery but can't claim the prize because she entered the country illegally. The scammer asks the victim to withdraw money from the bank to show good faith, or to pay taxes on winnings.

Using a similar scam with a different twist, the scammer calls via telephone and says the victim has won a big prize but needs to pay upfront for taxes before the prize can be delivered. The victim may also receive letters in the mail making the same claim. The lottery winnings are usually from another country. In reality, if you don’t live there, you are not eligible to win that country’s lottery. It’s a scam and the con artist will try to keep you on their hook for months or even years, always promising that “big payoff.”

Grandchildren in Trouble

A crying young person calls, saying he or she has been arrested or in an accident in another country and needs money to get out of jail. The connection is bad, so the grandparent thinks it is really a grandchild. The “grandchild” or a “lawyer” conveniently standing by on the same phone call, will tell the senior where to send the money (usually by wire transfer). Then senior discovers it was fraud when they call the grandchild to make sure they got the payment, only to find out the grandchild never was arrested or even out of the country. Another variation of this scheme, via email, claims friends and relatives have been robbed in another country and need money to get home.

Sweetheart Scams

Dating scams are as old as the hills, and Internet dating has created another way for them to proliferate. A boyfriend or girlfriend who claims to be wealthy but doesn't have cash at the moment will ask for money for a "sure thing" investment. People who engage in online romantic relationships with people they have not met in person are in a prime position to be cheated. Beware of getting into a relationship with someone you’ve never met, especially if they start asking for money for any reason. Scammers are very slick and may seem real. Remember, if it seems too good to be true, it probably is.

Investment Fraud & Exploitation

Seniors are frequently offered an educational free lunch, which is really a sales presentation. No investment should be entered into without significant investigation, and that includes investigating the person offering to sell you the product. Be wary of cold calls from people who introduce themselves as investment advisors or of investments with high returns or any scheme that promises guaranteed returns. If someone says to you, “I can guarantee you anything,” be afraid. Seniors with substantial assets should cultivate a relationship with a trusted financial advisor who has been vetted thoroughly and is known to your friends and relatives.

Power of Attorney

Thousands of seniors have lost the contents of their bank accounts, and even their homes, by giving power of attorney to an aide, relative or trusted neighbor, who may say it's just so he or she can pay bills on your behalf but actually grants significantly more financial power. Often, the elderly person doesn't understand what the document entails. If you want someone else to handle your financial affairs, make sure you trust that person fully and seek a trusted lawyer to review the document. If you just want someone to represent you in a single transaction, use a power of attorney that covers just that transaction.

ID Theft

Someone calls and claims to be from Medicare, your bank, the IRS, your insurance company or another business entity, then he proceeds to ask for credit card numbers or other personal information. Never give personal information over the phone unless you initiated the call and can absolutely confirm who you are dealing with.

The Pigeon Drop

The con artist tells the individual that he/she has found a large sum of money and is willing to split it if the person will make a “good faith” payment by withdrawing funds from his/her bank account. Often, a second con artist is involved, posing as a lawyer, banker, or some other trustworthy stranger.

Unfortunately, this scam is also done in person. The con artist approaches a senior in a parking lot and makes the same kind of claims. They’ll show the senior what appears to be large sums of cash and asks the senior to take them to a church so they can donate the money. A second scammer approaches, pretending to be a stranger. The two then work together to convince the senior to help them donate the money. They take the senior to his/her own bank, insist the senior withdraw funds to provide “good faith” money to prove he won’t take the money meant for the donation himself. The scammers then place all the money in a bag or tied bandana, leave it with the senior and then find a way to separate themselves from the senior. Secretly, the scammers swap out the bag or bandana and the remaining contains only shredded newspaper, not the senior’s good faith money.

How to Prevent Scams over the Phone

Never do business with someone who calls you out of the blue. Instead, have a practiced "no" script, such as "I don't buy products over the phone" or "I don't talk to solicitors." If you think the offer is legitimate, ask the person to put it in writing and mail it to you. Pressure to act immediately is a sign of a scam.

Pause to close the conversation. You should take time to do the research because once the money is out of your hands, it’s nearly impossible to get it back.