When she retired from her job at age 75, Alice Shockley* looked forward to spending a few leisurely mornings each week on the internet with her cup of coffee. She even took courses to improve her skills, but little did she know as she casually surfed the web she’d fall victim to cybercrime. Because she clicked on a pop-up message with a link saying her computer had been compromised, the perpetrators locked it up, holding her up for thousands of dollars in ransom money allegedly to fix it. She was unable to pay, and all her data was lost—in fact, she had to buy a new laptop and start over.

Unfortunately, regardless of age, these kinds of crimes are increasingly commonplace. But they are a special problem for the elderly, targeted because they are particularly vulnerable—known to err on the side of courtesy and politeness, and less adept than younger generations at technology or identifying potential cyber traps.

The Cost of Senior Fraud

The FBI estimates each year seniors lose more than $3 billion to fraud. And it isn’t only cybercrimes to which they fall victim. Sweepstakes and lottery scams, investment schemes, funeral and cemetery scams, charity scams, homeowner/reverse mortgage scams, Medicare scams, tax fraud, and romance scams are high on the agendas of criminals who often bilk seniors out of lifelong savings. Typically sitting on larger nest eggs than other demographics, seniors are like catnip to criminals who often operate on a global scale.

Also, according to AARP, crimes aimed at older adults are becoming more creative. “Scammers stay on top of whatever is new, such as the popularity of Zoom, COVID-19 vaccines and online shopping,” and then move fast to create ploys that best fit the moment says Amy Nofziger, AARP’s director of fraud victim support. These include criminals claiming to be utility workers, showing up at the door to frighten seniors—some of whom may be on electricity-dependent oxygen—into paying phony missed bills to avoid immediate disconnection.

Connecting Scams to a Senior’s Family

In yet another example of senior fraud, the same grandmother of six, Alice Shockley, received a phone call attempting to dupe her out of thousands of dollars. In this case, the caller identified himself as someone representing a grandson who’d been arrested and needed bail money wired. To qualify his story and make it almost impossible for Alice not to believe him, he mentioned the grandson’s name and repeated things about her family, likely accessed from items she’d casually posted on social media. Fortunately, in the wake of her computer incident, she was far more suspicious and hung up the phone—exactly what experts recommend—immediately calling her grandson and his parents to make sure he was safe.

The following are among the top six senior fraud scams and what to do should they happen to you or your loved one:

Medicare Scams

Criminals posing as Medicare representatives may try and trick seniors into providing sensitive information over the phone. These predators even make offers for free medical checkups and supplies, requiring the disclosure of credit card information for shipping and handling.

What to do: Never give out personal information to a stranger over the phone. Better yet, just hang up at the beginning of the call.

Funeral and Cemetery Scams

Used to be that criminals simply studied the obituary page to learn what day and time a funeral would take place, burglarizing the family’s home while they were out. But today there’s more. Preying on heightened emotions and grief, fraudsters scan obituaries to learn as much as possible about the deceased’s widow or other family members, soon claiming their departed loved one has left behind an outstanding debt needing immediate payment.

What to do: Preferably just hang up or tell whoever has contacted you that you’ll be happy to relay all the information to your attorney, who will in turn contact them.

In the realm of funeral homes themselves, disreputable ones will do everything possible to pad the bill. For example, a funeral director will insist that the casket—the most expensive part of a burial—is essential when performing direct cremation, which is characteristically achieved with an inexpensive cardboard one.

What to do: Experts say the best option is to plan for funerals in advance, something highly recommended to give people enough time to thoroughly research what they’re purchasing and from whom, without the addition of overwhelming grief which can severely impact decision-making. But if you’ve not done that, there may still be time to research the funeral home online, or have a family member do it, including complaints, Better Business Bureau (BBB) rating, etc. The best course of action overall is to ask for a recommendation from someone you know and trust.

Charity Scams

A perpetrator will phone the senior, sometimes following a natural disaster or other well-known crisis when it’s easier to tap into emotions, claiming to be from a relief organization. He or she will request a donation as well as credit card or bank account information, gaining access to everything.

What to do: Again, the most effective action is to simply hang up. Should you wish to donate, research the charity on verification sites such as Charity Navigator. If interested in donating, execute transaction directly with the representative you have called at the charity or do it online.

Sweepstakes and Lottery Scams

This scam is extremely common, and prevalent among seniors who may be lonely and vulnerable and more willing to engage with the perpetrator. Criminals inform the victim he or she has won a prize and must first make a payment to access it. They may be sent a check to deposit into their bank account, a check that will soon bounce, however by that time the criminal has already asked for and collected many hundreds of dollars from the unsuspecting victim in the form of “fees” or “taxes.” As most of these scams originate overseas, it is usually impossible to recoup the money.

What to do: Once again, never engage over the phone about money with anyone you don’t know. Should you be contacted by mail, it’s definitely an attempt at fraud so immediately dispose of the letter or contact the fraud division of your state’s Attorney General’s office.

Homeowner/Reverse Mortgage Scams

Particularly targeting seniors, who statistically own their own homes and have considerable savings and investments, criminals may send official-looking letters on behalf of the County Assessor’s Office. These letters allegedly identify the property’s assessed value and—for a fee—offer the homeowner a reassessment of property value and the accruing tax burden. This scam has gained real momentum with legitimate reverse mortgage popularity increasing as a tool for retirement planning and a financing option for Long-Term Care insurance.

What to do: Ignore the letter or contact the fraud division of your state’s Attorney General’s office.

Romance Scams

This notorious scam preys heavily on proverbially lonely widows or widowers who may have recently lost a spouse or lost one after many years of marriage and are consequently prime targets.

Romance scams occur when the con artist—often using dating, social media, and matchmaking sites to secure their victims—engage in elaborate acts of courtship, filling the huge void left by the victim’s partner. According to the FBI, these criminals are supreme actors, soon proposing marriage, manipulating their victim into sending larger and larger sums of money. Many are overseas, claiming to work in construction and suffering a bad accident or other medical emergency.

What to do: Should you suspect an online relationship isn’t on the up and up, immediately stop all contact. If an exchange of money was involved, file a claim with the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3).


Overall, if a senior has been the victim of a fraud, he or she can contact the National Elder Fraud Hotline, a resource created by the US Department of Justice (USDOJ) to provide assistance to fraud victims age 60 and over. A case manager will help the victim through the reporting process at the federal, state, and local levels, also making available additional resources on a case-by-case basis.

 

*Name has been changed. “Beware of These Senior Scams and Learn How to Protect Yourself or an Elder Loved One,” written by Beth Herman, Amada blog contributor.