Disreputable uses of the phone have been around since the day after Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone – or so it seems. When Bart Simpson calls Moe’s Bar and asks for Mr. I.P. Freely, it’s funny to everyone except Moe. But when scammers call seniors with ever more elaborate scams and ruses, it’s not just the financial burden of more than $36 billion dollars a year in fraud and extortion at stake. Just as serious is the emotional toll of harassment, threats, and the embarrassment and shame of falling for a con artist’s blarney. Seniors, caregivers and homecare companions all need to know what tricks scammers are trying to pull, because forewarned is forearmed.

Why are seniors such desirable targets for phone scammers? No matter how financially savvy, independent or wary most seniors are, the fact is that people over 60 were involved in 26% of the complaints that the Federal Trade Commission tracked in 2012. The simple truth is that people over 50 control 70% of the country’s wealth, so the smart scammer is going to go where the money is. Other factors that appeal to crooks include the predictability with which seniors receive their income, i.e. a pension check on the same day every month; the likelihood that a recent widow is handling her own finances for the first time and without confidence; or a parent’s reluctance to admit making a costly mistake when they are supposed to ‘know better.’ Modern technology adds another breach to the defenses when so many financial transactions are conducted online, but no one really understands how it all works. All these considerations make seniors tempting targets for a wide range of scams that get more elaborate and creative each year.

According to the National Council On Aging, these are the top ten scams that target seniors:

  1. Medicare / Health Insurance: scammers try to get personal information while pretending to be a Medicare representative, or they actually provide a sham medical service in a mobile clinic, and then bill Medicare for it.
  2. Counterfeit prescription drugs: seniors buy their medications online for less than they would pay at the pharmacy, but may receive nothing but sugar pills, or worse, something toxic.
  3. Funeral and cemetery scams: both versions are just awful

    1. A scammer approaches the widow or widower of the deceased he just read about in the paper, and claims that the deceased owed him a huge debt
    2. A funeral home pads the bill with completely unnecessary items, in one variation a casket for those who have chosen cremation
  4. Fake anti-aging products: best case scenario? Botox with nothing in it. Worst case? Botox with actual botulism improperly prepared. Embrace your wrinkles.
  5. Telemarketing: seniors are more used to old-school phone shopping, and enjoy talking on the phone

    1. Fake charities: common after disasters
    2. Fake accidents to children, grandchildren or relatives who need money wired to the hospital
    3. The ‘pigeon drop’ – commonly used by the Nigerian prince in email, it involves sending a ‘small’ sum to get a much larger sum
  6. Internet / online scams: the list can be endless. Here are some basics:

    1. Don’t download unknown software.
    2. Don’t put your credit card information into a form that just pops up on your screen.
    3. There is no Nigerian prince.
    4. Don’t click on pop-up ads.
    5. Don’t click on any link in a spam email even if it looks authentic.
    6. Don’t click on links to sites that look familiar – always open a new window and type the address yourself.
    7. Don’t complete Craigslist purchases in person without using the buddy system
  7. Homeowner / reverse mortgage scams: an unsecured reverse mortgage in exchange for a deed or lump sum is a great way to lose your house.
  8. Sweepstakes and lottery scams: a variation of the ‘small sum now for larger sum later’ scam. If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.
  9. The grandparent scam: this one is particularly heartless, because it plays on the heartstrings. The scammer calls, saying ‘Grandma, do you know who this is?’ Grandma says a name, the scammer proceeds to be that grandchild with a car/rent/tuition problem, and begs Grandma not to tell Mom and Dad because ‘they’ll kill me’.
  10. Investment schemes: again, if something appears too good to be true, it probably is. Bernie Madoff is a great example of this kind of scheme, but most perpetrators aren’t operating at his level.

Scammers may target seniors for the reasons we mentioned above, but the fact is that anyone can fall victim to one of these scams. Seniors simply have the assets, the landlines, and the lifestyle that make these types of scams more successful than any other demographic. Even Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, 59, fell for the ‘scary IRS agent’ scam, before he Googled the phone number. So no matter what your age, awareness is the best way to stay ahead of crooks and schemers, and family caregivers and homecare companions can help seniors by staying alert to what’s out there.