Family caregivers, keep your eyes open! Financial scams targeting seniors have become so common that they are now considered “the crime of the 21st century.” These crimes are devastating to older adults and can leave them in a very vulnerable position with little time to recoup their losses.
Senior citizens have long been the target of scammers, but according to the AARP, the rate of elder financial exploitation has more than doubled since 2020. The report attributes the rise in senior scams in part to the pandemic. Social isolation and increased dependency on online shopping created opportunities fraudsters could not resist.
According to the National Council on Aging, the scams on this list are among the most common.
Health Care/Medicare/Health Insurance Fraud
In these types of scams, perpetrators pose as a Medicare representative to get older people to give them their personal information. In another twist, scammers provide bogus services for elderly people at makeshift mobile clinics, then use the personal information they provide to bill Medicare and pocket the money.
Counterfeit Prescription Drugs
These scams are most often found on the Internet, where seniors go to find better prices on medications. Victims purchase unsafe substances that can inflict even more harm.
Funeral & Cemetery Scams
In one approach, scammers read obituaries and call or attend the funeral service of a stranger to take advantage of the grieving widow or widower. Claiming the deceased had an outstanding debt with them, scammers will try to extort money from relatives to settle the fake debts. Another tactic of disreputable funeral homes is to capitalize on family members’ unfamiliarity with the considerable cost of funeral services by adding unnecessary extra charges to the bill. In one common scam of this type, funeral directors will insist that a casket, usually one of the most expensive parts of funeral services, is necessary even when performing a direct cremation, which can be accomplished with a cardboard casket rather than an expensive display or burial casket.
There are as many variations on this scheme as there are scammers. In the “Pigeon Drop” scam, 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. In the “Fake Accident Ploy,” the con artist gets the victim to wire or send money on the pretext that the person’s child or another relative is in the hospital and needs the money. In “Charity Scams,” money is solicited for fake charities, most often after natural disasters.
With no face-to-face interaction and no paper trail, these telemarketing scams are incredibly hard to trace. Once a successful deal has been made, the buyer’s name is then shared with criminals looking for easy targets. Scammers often defraud the same person repeatedly.
Scammers employ many variations of internet fraud, including pop-up browser windows simulating virus-scanning software that fools victims into downloading a fake anti-virus program (at a substantial cost) or an actual virus that will reveal personal information to scammers.
Phishing scams are another favorite. An older adult receives email messages that appear to be from a legitimate company or institution asking them to “update” or “verify” their personal information. One common take on this scam involves sending emails that appear to be from the IRS about an audit or a tax refund.
A particularly elaborate property tax scam in San Diego saw fraudsters sending personalized letters to different properties apparently on behalf of the County Assessor’s Office. The letter, made to look official but displaying only public information, would identify the property’s assessed value and offer the homeowner, for a fee of course, to arrange for a reassessment of the property’s value and therefore the tax burden associated with it.
Reverse Mortgage Scams
With legitimate reverse mortgages increasing in frequency more than 1,300% between 1999 and 2008, scammers are taking advantage of this new popularity. Unsecured reverse mortgages can lead property owners to lose their homes when the perpetrators offer money or a free house somewhere else in exchange for the title to the property.
Sweepstakes & Lottery Scams
Scammers inform their mark that they have won a lottery or sweepstakes of some kind and need to make some sort of payment to unlock the supposed prize. The scammer sends the older adult a check that they can deposit in their bank account. While the deposited amount shows up in their account immediately, it will take a few days before the (fake) check is rejected. During that time, the criminals quickly collect money for supposed fees or taxes on the prize, which they pocket while the victim has the “prize money” removed from his or her account as soon as the check bounces.
The Grandparent Scam
Scammers will place a call to an older person and when the mark picks up, they will say something like this: “Hi Grandma, do you know who this is?” When the unsuspecting grandparent guesses the name of the grandchild the scammer most sounds like, the scammer has established a fake identity without having done any background research. Once “in,” the fake grandchild will usually ask for money to solve some unexpected financial problem (overdue rent, payment for car repairs, etc.), to be paid via Western Union or MoneyGram, which don’t always require identification to collect. At the same time, the scam artist will beg the grandparent “please don’t tell my parents, they would kill me.”
Family Member Fraud
Overseas scammers aren’t the only ones defrauding the elderly. Unscrupulous family members are a big part of the problem, stealing twice as much money from seniors as strangers do.
How common is this problem? Writing in Psychology Today Dr. Stacey Wood, Ph.D., a leading expert on financial elder abuse and fraud, says “[r]oughly 6 in 10 cases of elder financial abuse are committed by relatives and 3 in 10 cases are traced to friends, neighbors, or home care aides. Because the abuse often happens over a long period of time, the amounts stolen tend to be higher than amounts in other forms of fraud against seniors.”
Are you worried about an elderly loved one falling victim to scammers? Banks and other financial institutions can help combat fraud by keeping an eye out for any suspicious transactions requested by seniors. You can report any kind of suspicious activity to consumerfinance.gov/complaint.
Your local Life Care Planning Law Firm can help you put a plan together to keep your elderly loved one safe. Find one near you.