Most of the articles I write are about taking care of your financial house, especially planning for retirement. This one is different though. This one I’m writing because I’m furious! Every day there are more and more unscrupulous scammers who could care less who they steal from and the wake of hurt and financial devastation they leave behind. I’ve had some experiences with family members recently, reminding me that I—we—need to do a better job of watching out for the financial houses of the elderly around us.
According to the Social Security Administration Fact Sheet, among elderly Social Security beneficiaries, 50% of married couples and 70% of unmarried persons received 50% or more of their income from Social Security. In addition, 21% of married couples and 45% of unmarried individuals on Social Security get 90% or more of their income from Social Security.
For the most part, these people are the salt-of-the-earth. They were raised with a work ethic and a generous spirit. They will help you any way they can and not think twice about it. They were taught to be polite and they don’t want to be rude by hanging up the phone on someone. That’s what makes them easy marks for fraudsters. In some cases, their spouse has died and they’re just lonely. So, when someone calls, they want to talk and it’s easy to convince them to do what you want them to do. According to the FBI, seniors lose more than $3 billion to scammers every year. And when money is stolen from them, it can leave them devastated, vulnerable, with no way to recoup those losses.
So, if we’re going to be more responsible for protecting the elderly folks around us, here are some scams you need to know about.
Someone calls posing as a Medicare representative. They ask for your Social Security number, your Medicare number, or bank information, claiming they need the information in order to send a new Medicare card or add new Medicare benefits. Or they say your Medicare benefits are in danger of being cut off.
It’s not enough to mistrust a phone caller. Don’t trust caller ID. Scammers can make it look like an official call. Don’t give any personal information. Instead, hang up and call Medicare at 1-800-MEDICARE. That number is for checking on your Medicare account and reporting suspicious calls.
You get a phone call from someone claiming they’re from the IRS and that you owe back taxes. They go on to tell you that if the debt isn’t cleared today, police officers will be sent to your house to arrest you. “But,” they say, “if you’ll mail a personal check to this address everything will be taken care of.”
The IRS never calls you on the phone to resolve an issue without sending a letter first.
Computer & Tech Support Scam
There are many senior citizens who are overwhelmed by technology. With this scam, a pop-up message or blank screen shows up on a computer or cell phone saying the device is compromised or needs fixing. When you call the support number, the scammer may request remote access to your device to fix the problem, or they may request credit card information so they can fix the problem. Either option is disastrous. The Federal Trade Commission says seniors who fell for this scam lost an average of $500 each.
Remember, I said most of today’s seniors were raised to be generous. That’s why the Charity Scam is successful. Scammers will use the name of a familiar charity claiming they’re raising money to help victims of a natural disaster or other tragedy that’s in the news. They say the senior’s donation is needed immediately to help the victims of this disaster. They ask you to give by credit card, gift card, or money transfer—all red flags. If you want to give to a charity, call the charity directly.
Sweepstakes & Lottery Scams
Among retirees, running out of money is one of their biggest concerns. As I’m writing this, I have a client whose investments will be gone in a year, eaten up by the annual increases of the retirement community she lives in and the additional $1200 a month they now charge since she moved into assisted living.
With those kinds of statistics, it’s no wonder retirees fall for scams that promise a big payout. Scammers call, send bogus emails or fake direct mail, telling the recipient they’ve won the lottery. All they have to do is make a payment to unlock the huge amount of money they’ve been awarded. In some cases, grandma gets a check in the mail after making the payment. She deposits it into her bank and in a few days, she’s notified that the check bounced. The scammer gets away with what he’s stolen and grandma is out what she paid and the sweepstakes winnings are removed from her account.
The grandparent scam is simple and devious. It strikes at an elder’s heart and their love for their grandkids. The caller may open up with a line like this, “Hi Grandma, do you know who this is?” By the time the grandparent guesses the name of the grandchild the scammer sounds most like, the scammer has assumed the fake identity and begins to ask for help with some financial emergency like overdue rent, or car repairs. And they beg the grandparent not to tell anyone they’ve called because they’d be embarrassed if anyone in the family found out. Scammers say it would be best if they get the money by credit card, gift card, or money transfer because those don’t always require identification to collect.
Telephone technology is so sophisticated today that computers can dial massive numbers of households. Robo scammers have a bag full of tricks. One is to call the intended victim and tell them a warranty is expiring on a car or a piece of electronic equipment and an immediate payment is needed to keep the warranty in place.
Another scheme is the “Can you hear me?” call. When the victim says yes, the scammer hangs up, having recorded grandpa’s voice, which is then used as a voice signature to authorize charges on stolen credit cards.
Con artists have discovered a large pool of potential marks in the increasing world of internet dating. Older people who have lost a spouse after many years of marriage can be lonely, and that’s what the scammers are looking for. They build elaborate fake profiles on social media. They correspond with their potential victim, and when a relationship has been established, they ask the senior for money to pay for medical emergencies or other such expenses. Some of the scammers pretend to be in another country and ask for money to pay for visas or travel expenses to come visit the victim. And because this scam can drag on for a long time, the romance scammers can get a lot of money out of the senior. According to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) seniors lost approximately $84 million to romance scams in 2019.
Home Repair Scam
Scammers show up at the senior’s home offering repair and handyman services. They quote a price and take payment in advance and then disappear, never to be heard from again.
There are other scams that could be added to the list. Suffice it to say that while we do everything we can to take care of our own financial houses, we have a responsibility to help our seniors protect their financial houses too—financial houses that are often much more fragile and vulnerable than ours.
What’s the Solution
So, how do we help protect our seniors from scammers, flimflammers, crooks, and thieves? It starts with a conversation.
- Talk to them about the warning signs of a scam.
- Tell them the IRS will never call them, and anyone who does may be a scammer.
- Tell them you can’t win the lottery without buying a ticket and any mail they receive promising a big payout is probably not legitimate.
- If they have a computer, warn them not to click on any pop-up or link that shows up on their screen.
- Remind them that it’s ok to hang up on callers, and even better, not to answer any phone call from someone unless it’s in their personal list of contacts. If it’s important, the caller will leave a message.
- Tell them it’s ok to ask your opinion about calls and mail they receive.
Our seniors worked hard to raise us and protect us. Now it’s our turn to watch out for them.