’Tis the Season to be Vigilant – Scams Targeting Seniors are on the Rise

Dec 19, 2022
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By: Dana Walsh Sivak, Esq.

Bah humbug! While the holidays are meant to be a time for giving, professional scam artists are modern day grinches, intent on manipulating vulnerable people into giving up their hard-earned savings and jeopardizing their financial security this holiday season. Don’t let your holiday merriment be marred by falling victim to a financial scam.

Predatory financial scams are often a well-planned, coordinated effort by groups of criminals, and their methods are not always easy to identify at first glance as a scam. Seniors are extremely vulnerable to financial scams, and are commonly targeted as potential victims, for a number of reasons.

As most seniors have reached retirement age, scammers know that many older adults have an established credit history, and significant wealth accumulated over the course of their lifetime, which means that their victims have access to large amounts of money that could be prime for the taking.

The susceptibility of older adults to coordinated scams makes seniors a desirable target for the perpetrators, as well. Studies have shown that, as they age, seniors have less of an ability to detect a scam, owing to a decreased sensitivity to deception cues, and reduced decision-making capacity that occurs as a natural part of aging.

Victims are not limited to older adults suffering from cognitive impairment, either. One study found that 1 in 18 "cognitively intact" older adults fall victim to financial harm perpetrated through scams, fraud or abuse, and the CDC has recognized the financial exploitation of older adults as a "serious public health problem".

While many older adults are sophisticated and frequently use technology in their day-to-day lives, most seniors are less tech savvy, and less experienced with computers, than most younger adults. Their lack of familiarity with certain devices means they are less likely to be able to recognize that a well-disguised scam text or e-mail is not from a trusted source, or to distinguish a legitimate communication (such as a text message or e-mail) from a fraudulent or malicious one. 

Since many seniors live alone, scammers know that it is less likely that another member of the household will recognize what is happening and put a stop to it before they’ve had an opportunity to perpetrate their crime.

Around the holidays, these scams are becoming more frequent, and more brazen. For example, knowing that shopping increases around the holidays, scammers are capitalizing on the holiday season to mask their scamming efforts as false “notifications” that purchase orders a person has placed online could not be processed, or that a package could not be delivered and must be addressed. Others involve a scammer calling a person and pretending that they are following up on an order that the individual never placed, often for a high value item (such as AirPods, cellular phones, televisions or computers). These communications lead the victim to believe that someone may have gained access to their accounts to purchase expensive goods, and that they need to take some action to address the issue, whether to investigate an order they don’t remember placing or to correct a payment method. Once the victim clicks on the malicious link embedded in the text or email, they may inadvertently provide personal or financial information to the scammer while trying to “verify their identity” or to correct a “purchase order” payment issue that never actually existed.

Another recent scam involves texting an individual’s phone and “notifying” them that their cellular phone bill was paid this month as a gift, and then providing a link to follow to view the billing statement. While it’s a nice thought, no one (and no phone company) will be “taking care of” your monthly bill unexpectedly, and even if they did, there would be no text message notification from the company celebrating this purported “good deed”.

As scammers become more sophisticated and creative, the messages they send out to victims also become more difficult to identify as fraudulent at first glance. Some recent scam text messages indicate that a monthly bill (such as Netflix, Amazon, or your cell phone carrier) was not paid and requires immediate attention. Because more and more communications with companies are taking place by text messages or phone calls, scammers know that individuals receiving messages claiming to be from one of these popular services won’t raise an immediate “red flag” for the recipient that it could actually be a scam.

In the most egregious cases, scammers target seniors by using high-pressure intimidation tactics to instill fear in their victims. Recent scams have included phone calls and text messages from a caller pretending to be a government representative, warning that the victim owes a great deal of money and will be arrested if they do not promptly wire money to the scammer. In other instances, victims have received calls from an individual claiming that their loved one, often a child or grandchild, is in some kind of trouble, sometimes claiming that the person has been arrested, and is overseas (or in another country) in the custody of authorities, and that a quick transfer of money is required in order to ensure their loved one’s safety and freedom. In both scenarios, the victim panics, overcome with worry, and the scammer insisting that the victim act quickly to send the money they are demanding to prevent their loved one from suffering some harm, prevents the victim from taking the time to fully process the information before them, and to consider whether the information they’ve received is legitimate.

What can we do to protect our seniors from falling victim to these sophisticated scams?

The most important thing we can do to combat these scammers is to educate seniors on the recent trends in scam activities, so that they will be in a more informed position to immediately detect that something is not right when they receive a malicious text message, phone call or e-mail. Seniors should be cautioned that anytime they receive a call that involves high pressure tactics, instructs that the senior should not tell anyone (including police) about the call, or suggests that their loved one is in danger, rather than panic and react, take a moment to pause and assess the situation. Seniors should be cautioned that they should always talk to a trusted loved one (such as a child or adult grandchild), who is tech savvy and capable of assessing whether a communication might be a scam, before taking any action or disclosing any personal or financial information. Never purchase gift cards or wire money through Western Union or Money Gram, as being asked to perform wire transfers or pay a debt by purchasing gift cards are often a telltale sign that the “recipient” is perpetrating a scam.

Receiving news through a text message, phone call or e-mail that you’ve “won” something is another sign that one should look out for. Callers know that the individual’s excitement over the news, and their sincere hope that the news is true, will cloud their judgment and lead them to believe that a potentially life-changing opportunity awaits. Seniors on a fixed income are prime targets for this type of scam. When the “prize” requires the disclosure of personal information, financial account information, or pre-payment of taxes or delivery fees, one can be assured that the offer is a scam, and the only “prize” that awaits is a valuable (and difficult) lesson for the victim.

When receiving an e-mail, seniors should be cautioned that the name displayed on a sender’s information may not be the actual sender. For example, if the sender’s name appears to be the name of someone the recipient knows or is associated with (such as a business colleague or a family member), by hovering your mouse over the email address, you may see that the e-mail address itself is something very different and generic, which is indicative of a scam. With so much information publicly available on the internet, it is not difficult for scammers to piece together enough personal information about a potential victim to convince the victim that they are who they say they are, and that the basis of their request for money or information is legitimate. Most importantly, when in doubt, do not click any links in e-mails, and do not put personal or financial information into any forms or requests received. Anytime your social security number and date of birth are requested, this should raise an immediate red flag of suspicion that a scam is afoot.

And please remember that governmental agencies and authorities, such as the IRS, the Social Security Administration, the FBI, and local police departments will never notify you by phone, e-mail or text message to let you know that you are facing an arrest, particularly when the “arrest” can allegedly be avoided by purchasing a bunch of gift cards and handing them over to a third party. (Don’t worry - if you are actually facing an arrest, these agencies will make sure to let you know in a more official manner!)

Seniors Must Feel Comfortable Reaching Out For Help!

It is important that as soon as a senior becomes aware that they’ve been the victim of a scam, they immediately seek help. If they realize they inadvertently gave out personal or financial information to the scammer, there may be a brief window of time in which to protect certain accounts, or place a freeze on your credit information, before accounts are drained, and precious savings are gone forever. Loved ones can also help protect seniors from further efforts by the scammer, since scammers may continue to try to extort funds from a victim on an ongoing basis.  Since in some cases, a person may even go to the victim’s home to try to retrieve money, it’s imperative that family members and the police are informed as soon as possible to ensure the victim’s safety.

Seniors should not allow shame or embarrassment to keep their victimization by a scammer a secret from their loved ones, their financial institution, or the police. These criminals are successful for a reason, and lots of people fall for these sophisticated scams, including smart, savvy and highly educated people of all ages. Family members should handle these situations delicately, and strive to refrain from reacting angrily, or making the victim feel badly about falling for a scam (as, surely, they feel badly enough already). We can help the seniors we love and care for by educating them about these scams, encouraging them to speak to us when they are suspicious about a communication they’ve received, and to help them feel safe telling us when they realize they’ve been the victim of a scam. Only by treating the seniors in our lives with dignity, respect and compassion, and keeping lines of communication open, can we help seniors keep themselves, and their personal and financial information, safe and secure. 

DISCLAIMER: This summary is not legal advice and does not create any attorney-client relationship. This summary does not provide a definitive legal opinion for any factual situation. Before the firm can provide legal advice or opinion to any person or entity, the specific facts at issue must be reviewed by the firm. Before an attorney-client relationship is formed, the firm must have a signed engagement letter with a client setting forth the Firm’s scope and terms of representation. The information contained herein is based upon the law at the time of publication.

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