Tell me if this sounds familiar, “Hello I’m calling from Windows and we’ve detected a problem with your computer.” That’s the opening line of a scam. The caller, often from India, wants information or money. And you’d be surprised how many people still fall for it. For years, cybercriminals have targeted seniors. Members of older generations are prime targets for online scams for several reasons:
- Seniors tend to be trusting and polite, and for that reason just don’t hang up.
- Seniors are more likely to have cognitive or dementia disorders that cause confusion.
- Seniors are more likely to have some savings and good credit.
- Seniors are more likely to live alone and therefore less likely to tell others about suspicious behavior.
- Seniors are less likely to report becoming victimized to others, including authorities often because they are embarrassed.
- Seniors are less likely to be tech-savvy and unlikely to know how to block scams and malware.
Local and federal law enforcement agencies are getting more aggressive about going after perpetrators of senior-focused cons, but the success of past senior scams has increased the popularity of such crimes. While scams can occur over the phone and through the front door, online scams are overwhelmingly common and effective. With less work, hackers can attack more potential victims, which gives a greater likelihood of obtaining cash or data.
Worse, online scammers tend to target a specific demographic of vulnerable seniors: elderly women who live alone. Older women often exhibit more than one of the qualities that make seniors fall victim to scams; they are usually civil toward strangers, they can feel lonely and crave social interaction, they are often less adept at adopting tech, and they can live to advanced ages, developing disorders like dementia and Alzheimer’s.
There are many steps seniors can take to protect themselves from cybercrime and scams. The first step in any strong protection plan is installing Internet security software from companies like TrendMicro, Norton, McAfee or others. Users should practice safe computer habits, including avoiding sending personal information, like bank account numbers or social security numbers, over the web. Seniors should be skeptical of all incoming messages, even from someone they seemingly recognize; if someone familiar asks for money through email, it is best to call them to verify before initiating the transfer. It is vital that seniors cultivate a community where they feel comfortable sharing recent experiences. Then, they will be less likely to feel a connection to an online con artist.
Finally, all computer users – senior or otherwise – should be aware of existing scams, so everyone can be safe online. Here are eight of the most common elder scams circulating the web.
Utilities like water, electricity, and gas require monthly payments, and scammers often take advantage of forgetfulness to squeeze extra money from utility users. Notices of non-payment and imminent shut-off of vital utilities often elicit a prompt transfer of funds. After receiving such a notice, users should contact their utility providers rather than mindlessly paying.
Seniors receive more health care than other sectors of the population, making fake notices about unpaid health bills more believable. Worse, any U.S. citizen over 65 is automatically enrolled in Medicare, which means these scammers don’t have to investigate victims much before attacking. The fear of losing health care when one needs it most compels most seniors to pay up fast.
Similarly, scammers can advertise cheap prescription drugs online, collecting payments from seniors looking to save money while never intending to mail out legitimate drugs. Not only does this scam endanger seniors’ finances, but it can severely harm seniors’ health — especially if they run out of vital drugs before they recognize the scam.
The bereaved are particularly susceptible to scams. Heartless thieves will often contact survivors and claim the deceased owed them money. Alternatively, scammers might send out fake invitations to funerals and collect the condolence checks that come flooding in. Even funeral homes can be involved in shady dealings, so it is vital seniors get everything in writing and confirmed before offering money.
Fake Anti-Aging Products
Our culture’s obsession with youth drives many aging seniors to invest wantonly in anti-aging products. Purported miracle creams and age-reversing elixirs rarely work; even legitimate products found in the store rarely have much effect. Still, online ads for phenomenal age-defying results often net a surprising number of victims.
IRS and Social Security Scams
Older adults are likely to pay taxes and receive some form of social security aid, making them safe targets for this scam. Notices that users need to update their tax or social security information – providing exceedingly private information like social security numbers, addresses, and payment accounts – should be scrutinized and investigated before response.
Sweepstakes and Lotteries
Few seniors would say no to a cash windfall, so some scammers send notifications informing seniors of their “recent lottery win.” It is important that seniors remember that almost no lottery contacts winners – especially not winners that can’t remember entering. Further, lotteries never require winners to make cash deposits before they can collect. Any lottery that does this is a scam.
In this scam, criminals pose as grandchildren trapped in terrible situations, often in foreign countries or prison. The scammers request seniors wire them money to help them out, so they don’t have to call their parents. Because grandparents often dote on their grandkids, this is a wildly successful scam that has been in use for several years.
Bottom line – better safe than sorry. If someone wants money or information by phone, get their phone number and tell them you will call back. Chances are they won’t give it to you. If it’s from an online source, check it out before responding. Track down their website, reach out to the Better Business Bureau or to a state or local consumer protection agency.