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Scams and Identity Theft Targeting Seniors

Table of Contents


Crime of the 21st Century 

Have you or a loved one been a victim of the crime of the 21st century? You may have, without even realizing it. With advancing technology, scams against the elderly population has become easier than ever. There are now numerous ways an elderly person can be an unknowing victim of a scam. Considered the crime of the 21st century, scams wreak havoc on the bank accounts of you or your loved one. Here are some things to be conscious of when it comes to scams and identity theft.



How pervasive is this crisis? 

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine published a study on this titled Elder Mistreatment: Abuse, Neglect, and Exploitation in Aging America (2003). The report estimates nearly 1 to 2 million senior Americans are victims of elder mistreatment each year. This comes in various forms, but one form that is more common is mistreating the elderly through technology scams and identity theft. 

According to one study, New York State Cost of Financial Exploitation (2016), it is estimated that seniors lose anywhere from $2.9 billion to $36 billion a year from financial exploitation. Unfortunately, not all cases are reported so there are limitations to knowing specific figures in this research. The pervasiveness of this issue doesn’t end here. According to a study done by The Pennsylvania Department of Banking and Securities, this problem is expected to get worse. 

As shown by this graph, a 2019 CFPB (Consumer Financial Protection Bureau) report shows this as a booming issue. Reports on elder financial exploitation have grown exponentially in the past years. This kind of crime is popular among scammers. 


smiling senior

Why seniors and the elderly?

Seniors and the elderly are targeted for financial exploitation and identity theft for a variety of reasons. Scammers take advantage of this population because they tend to be more trusting, isolated, and unaware of current technologies that make it easy for criminals to  obtain personal information. More so, seniors with mental health illnesses such as dementia or Alzheimer’s disease are more susceptible to fraud. A 2013 study shows women have a higher tendency to oblige to a scammer. 

What is it like to be scammed?

One woman tells a distressing story of when her grandmother was scammed. She walked in the house and heard her grandmother talking with a man on speakerphone. He angrily shouted, “Go get your credit card now!” He was posing as a computer service technician from Microsoft. Scammers will often say they are from a big, trusted company. The scammer said he was there to help the grandmother solve a computer problem and charged her $3500. The grandmother, wanting to use her computer again, had agreed. Her granddaughter, however, walked in at the perfect moment to intervene. This was a tense moment for both the granddaughter and her grandmother. The grandmother thought she was getting honest help and was confused as to why her granddaughter intervened. The granddaughter stopped the scheme immediately.

Scammers like these (pretending to help with technical computer difficulties) are common. But it’s important to also be aware of the many ways scammers will craftily take personal information from you. 




Have you ever received an email or call from a “Nigerian prince”? This is a popular scam. A man posing as a Nigerian prince will say he’s offering you a large sum of money, but you must transfer money to him first. This large sum of money, he claims, comes from a Nigerian fortune he has inherited and decided to share with you. People unaware of this scam will often believe the man and transfer the money to his bank account, never to see the money or hear from him again. Many report the Nigerian as very good with words and manipulative. Some consider this as one of the longest-running internet scams. 

Thousands have been fooled by another scam involving a utility company employee.  A person posing as someone from a utility company will ask for personal information. People wouldn’t suspect their utility company to be untrustworthy, and this is how scammers gain tens of thousands of dollars every year from unsuspecting homeowners. 

A scheme that often targets seniors is the telemarketing scam. Telemarketers will call selling things like vitamins, vacations, health care products, or giving away free prizes. The call will always come around to asking for personal information, like your credit card information, which they will use to your detriment.  

Another scheme is when a person poses as someone from the IRS requesting money. It’s a cunning tactic, as most elderly people would assume the person on the other line is truly from the IRS and needs their money. Most have no reason to assume otherwise. One person recalled when their elderly aunt got a call from the “IRS”, claiming she underpaid her taxes. The scammer told this elderly woman she could finish paying her taxes over the phone with her credit card information. This is a common ploy. 


How does the issue compare to other countries?

This is a worldwide issue. Interestingly enough, a 2013 Internet Crime Report shows 90% of internet scams are reported in the United States. The 90% converts to 238,189 complaints in that year. The next two most common places of scamming were Canada and the United Kingdom. The top three states of highest internet scam reporting were California, Florida, and New York.

Most scammers originate from Nigeria, India, or China. Nonetheless, it’s important to realize a scammer can come from anywhere and pretend to be anyone. Take preventative actions by always being on guard for sneaky schemes. 

What is being done to solve the problem?

To prevent this enormous issue from growing, many government organizations and volunteers have stepped up in an effort to end these crimes. Some of the ways the problem is being solved is through task forces, help centers, councils, coalitions, and training given to assist the elderly in preventing fraud and exploitation. Check with your local authorities to see what resources are offered in your area or how you could get involved.

The FBI’s website instructs on what to do if you suspect telemarketing fraud. The United States Department of Justice assembled the “Elder Fraud Strike Force”, which coordinates action against foreign fraud schemes specifically those targeting  American seniors. This task force was announced on World Elder Abuse Awareness Day, which falls on June 15th. 

Even the American Bar Association is getting involved. The ABA created a free webinar for recognizing and preventing scams. In the webinar, several acclaimed speakers give their best advice for how to combat this crime, as well as direct you to other helpful resources. For the “utility company employee” scam, there is UUAS: Utilities United Against Scams. This is a campaign hoping to bring awareness of this dreadful scam.  


Are scammers caught?

The problem seems overwhelming, but sometimes these scammers do get caught. In an article Forbes published, twenty-one scammers who posed as IRS agents over the phone were arrested in the United States and from their call center in Ahmedabad, India. All scammers faced hearings in Houston, Texas for their crimes of money laundering. 

Online scammers, also known as cybercriminals, can also get caught. This process is a little more complex, however, because of their sophisticated tactics. It’s also very time-consuming. It involves digital forensics tactics, location tracking, decrypting encrypted files, and specialized task forces. 

The cybercriminal often works alone, making them harder to track down, but occasionally the FBI will catch a group of cybercriminals involved together. Sometimes law enforcement has to work with government agencies or international partners to find the criminal. The IC3 (Internet Crime Complaint Center) helps law enforcement as well. They send their reported data to the FBI for evidence support. 

When convicted, this criminal could face anywhere from 5 to 20 years in prison. Depending on the severity of the crime, they could also face fines upwards of $11,000. These criminals naturally go to great lengths to prevent this from happening and unfortunately, it is quite difficult to catch cybercriminals. 



Surveying Seniors 

The sheer number of people affected by ruthless scammers and thieves is overwhelming. In an effort to learn more, the Senior Care Center surveyed 147 seniors over the age of fifty, asking about their experience as a victim of a scam or identity theft. 

Survey conclusions

The results showed 71% of these seniors were victims of several different scams or identity theft crimes. All were deceived and left in a vulnerable position. It is important to note the different kinds of scams criminals use so you can be aware of them as well. 

Means of Communication

According to the survey, scammers approached the participants in a variety of ways. However, phone call (61%) and email (12%) were the dominant means of communication. Others were scammed in-person, through text, mail, advertisements on social media platforms, pop-up windows, and even dating apps. 

Scam Variety

The Senior Care Center discovered scammers are clever and cunning when inventing new ways to take advantage of a senior’s finances. The two most common ways are claiming to be part of the IRS/SSA/FBI (23%) and claiming to provide computer technical support (22%). Other common scamming techniques were claiming a friend/family member is in need (9%), pretending to provide a domestic service (9%), claiming you won something, like the lottery (9%), or pretending to have romantic interest (4%). 

When victims described what happened during the  scam, a few common themes emerged. Scammers always asked for personal information and/or money. Scammers claimed an awful, disappointing, or exciting circumstance required immediate action on the victim’s part. In a computer technical support scam, scammers will claim there is something that needs to be downloaded or fixed on the victim’s computer. In other situations, the perpetrator knew personal information about the victim (i.e. grandson’s name, criminal record, life history).




Avoid These Common Pitfalls

Scammers will always get more crafty in how they victimize the elderly population. However, there are a few helpful keys to remember so you and your senior loved one are safe from financial catastrophe. When met with a curious, awful, or exciting circumstance, remember: 

  1. The scammer often asks for immediate action. A participant of this survey recalled the scammer telling his elderly father “he would be subject to a lawsuit and potential jail time if he didn’t make payment immediately.” Another participant shared,  “[the scammer] said my daughter was hurt and needed $1200 to be treated at a hospital. It scared me to death and I sent the money.” If this were a legitimate circumstance, the person would be open to giving you time to call your bank, advisor, doctor, or someone of authority to verify if what is happening is true. Take time to think about it, and don’t be afraid to inquire more. 
  2. This person will be pushy and try to invoke a strong emotional reaction trying to encourage you to immediate action without thinking. Participants shared “they were persistent”, “I was afraid”, and “they worked [my mom] up into a fear frenzy”. Be aware of how this person uses pressure to manipulate you or your loved one. 
  3. The scammer will ask for personal information and/or money. This includes, but is not limited to: asking for a social security number, credit card information, photocopy of your ID, wire money transfer, mailed check, and buying “a protection plan” for your computer. Always take time to verify the predicament with a trusted, familiar third party before taking action. 

Scammers are out there and prevalent. Do your best to be aware of common scams, and share them with loved ones. Remembering these few key factors will help protect you and your loved ones from disaster. 


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