Fraud has soared during the pandemic, and retirees — especially those 70 and older — have paid the steepest price. The median loss was $9,000 compared with $750 for the youngest age group, those 18 to 29, according to the Federal Trade Commission. Romance scams alone spiked for every age group in 2021, according to the most recent Consumer Sentinel data from the Federal Trade Commission.
“Romance scams are at an all time high,” says Deborah Royster, assistant director, Office for Older Americans with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Overall, fraud of various types affects “many, many older adults causing substantial financial harm,” she says. “It can be catastrophic. We’ve seen a rise during the pandemic.”
Various types of scams ranging from identity theft and impostor fraud to tech support and grandparent scams are increasing but those who work with older adults point to romance scams as a major problem. “They are the highest dollar losses for older adults,” Royster says.
The intensified isolation during the pandemic exacerbated the situation. “Social isolation is a factor in some types of frauds and scams,” she says. “During the pandemic, (older adults) are more apt to answer” the phone.
Fraud by telephone contact was the method for 36% of fraud reports to the FTC when the contact method was identified. Online ads or pop-ups were just 2% of fraud reports but of those reports, 68% reported dollars lost. Fraud by email was 14%, and of those reports, 14% reported dollars lost.
“Online scams are among the most prevalent scams against older people now, and are increasing over time,” says Genevieve Waterman, director of economic security, National Council on Aging.
There are a variety of ways older Americans become fraud victims, she says.
Online scams. Criminals use email, texts, and pop-ups to prey on their victims. Tech support scams are common ways they approach people, sometimes attempting to take over the victim’s computer to“fix” a problem that doesn’t exist.
Grandparent scams. Scammers impersonate a grandchild, saying, for example, “I am stranded in Mexico. Can you send me money to get home?” As recently as July, scammers in Montgomery County, Md., and Providence, R.I., used grandparent scams to obtain hundreds of thousands of dollars. According to the U.S. Attorney, District of Rhode Island, the criminals defrauded 14 seniors out of more than $350,000. The scam involved calling seniors, and telling them that a loved one, typically a grandchild, had been arrested after a motor vehicle accident, and needed cash bail. The victims were told to give cash to a courier who would come to their home to accept the money. “They know how to play on people’s emotions,” Royster says.
Contractor scams. Fraudsters knock on your door in spring or summer or after a natural disaster with promises of fixing up your home. They ask for payment upfront, and never return.
Sweetheart scams. Scammers prey on online daters, for example, then seek funds for their supposed health or financial problems.
Employment scams. Criminals pose as employers or recruiters with fake job listings and seek to obtain money or personal information such as Social Security or bank account numbers.
Mail fraud. Flyers promoting Medicare Advantage, Medicare gap or supplement plans arrive via postal mail typically in the fall during Medicare Open Enrollment period. Some are scams.
Experts offers tips to protect yourself from scammers:
Avoid clicking on unfamiliar links that arrive by email or text or in pop-ups on your computer. Retirees who are relatively new to the online world tend to be more vulnerable to online communication. When in doubt about who sent you the email or text or pop-up, “turn off your computer and turn it back on,” says CFPBs Royster. If it’s a tech support potential scam telling you something is wrong with your computer, seek out a reputable company you know instead to determine whether your computer is not working correctly.
Change the passwords on your online accounts once a quarter. By using the same passwords repeatedly, you make it easier for scammers to figure them out, and to gain access to one or more of your accounts, says NCOA’s Waterman. In addition, if you keep a password “cheat sheet” with your passwords on it, leave it at home. If you use the same password on multiple sites, criminals can gain access to multiple sites with your information. An alternative is to use a mnemonic, a pattern of letters, ideas, or associations to help you remember the passwords.
Avoid sharing personal information with anyone you don’t know. Keep what is known as personally identifiable information (PII) — your Social Security number, Medicare number, birth date, address where you live, driver’s license number — out of the hands of criminals. If you’re using online dating sites, be aware that some profiles are created by scammers who prey on isolated or lonely people. “If you give them your name and address and how to find you,” it makes it easier for them to gain access to your accounts, says Waterman. “The scammers are good at gaining the trust of individuals.”
Use a credit card, not a gift card or a wire transfer to pay for purchases. If you’re asked to pay by gift card or wire transfer, it’s a red flag, says Royster. If you suspect you have been scammed, contact your bank, the gift card or the wire transfer company immediately. “Keep track of how you paid,” she says. “It’s hard to get your money back. If you use a credit card (to pay) it’s easier to recover” your money. Report the incident to local law enforcement as well as to the FederalTrade Commission.
Screen your calls and only answer phone calls from people you know. Don’t rely on caller ID as scammers use government telephone numbers and others to trick potential victims. “If it feels off, when in doubt don’t pick up or hang up,” Waterman says. If you receive a call from someone who is impersonating a grandchild in trouble and asking you to send money, pause before you act. Then, “call a family member to see if the story adds up,” she says.
The scams are more sophisticated as well. “Many of these fraudsters are part of professional crime rings,” Royster says. “They know the cues (victims) will respond to.”
Check who is at your door before opening it. “Don’t answer the door for anyone you don’t know,” says NCOA’s Waterman. “Work with people you know.” Ask neighbors and friends for referrals and consider online reviews before letting anyone into your home.
Check your credit report and bank accounts. If you think you’ve given information such as your Social Security number to a scammer, order a free credit report to ensure no one has opened a credit card, mortgage, or home equity line with your information. To obtain your free annual credit report, visit AnnualCreditReport.com or call 1-877-322-8228.
Educate yourself and loved ones about scams. Download or read this free guide, Money Smart for Older Adults.