What Seniors Need to Know about Online Scams

August 21, 2019

You probably can recognize the logo of a local bank because you either use their services or have encountered their business before. Whether you withdraw money, use their credit card, or receive a letter from them at home: you don’t question whether the interaction is valid or not. We trust the brand and the organization. Now suppose you get an email from them saying they have completed a regular systems maintenance and found your account profile details incomplete. As a result a temporary hold has been placed on your account while they await further verification. It is an email that sounds like it is from your bank, with the right logo and signatures, with a link saying it will take you to your account. Would you trust this email?

Seniors and online safety

This scenario could be a sophisticated and professional phishing scam. A phishing scam is often presented as an email or text message that looks like it’s from a trusted company, but is sent by criminals, and designed to steal sensitive personal information or money. They take your personal details by making you click a certain link or open an attachment.

Each year, seniors lose an estimated $2.9 billion collectively through financial fraud (either by telephone or Internet). Criminals target seniors specifically for various reasons. For starters, they assume that with age comes lower technical literacy and cognitive ability. This could impact financial decision making and the ability to accurately report crimes afterwards. Additionally, they expect elderly people to have more financial resources compared to younger people, and to be more socially isolated. This isolation makes them less likely to talk about the theft with others, but also makes them more likely to respond to telemarketing phone calls, scam emails and online grooming. For that reason seniors are sometimes referred to as “the forgotten victims of financial crime”, since a staggering 1 out of 18 seniors experience financial scams in the US alone.

Top 3 examples of scams

Let’s dive a bit deeper: what kind of scams are out there? The honest answer is that there are many. Luckily, the United States Senate Special Committee on Aging has compiled a list of the top three scams targeted to the elderly, based on the number of complaints received in 2018.

1. IRS Impersonation Scams (282 complaints)

What: Fraudsters posing as Internal Revenue Service (IRS) agents and falsely accusing seniors of owing back taxes and penalties. They threaten with home foreclosure, arrest and deportation if this is not paid immediately. Once victims pay, they will be emailed again with the same request for money, in some cases leading to accumulating payments of $120,000.

How: Telephone and email; often “spoofed”, making the victim believe the call comes from the “202” Washington, DC area code.

Tips & tricks: The IRS will never call you to ask for an immediate payment. You will never be forced nor asked for debit card number over the phone, so if the caller asks for this: hang up immediately.

2. Robocalls / Unsolicited Phone Calls (149 complaints)

What: People are called by telemarketers and scammers, increasingly by use of robocall technology. Examples include calls about an expired vehicle warranty or joining the fight against cancer.

How: Telephone; often “spoofed”, making the victim believe the call comes from the “202” Washington, DC area code.

Tips & tricks: List yourself on the Do-Not-Call registry to minimize unsolicited phone calls. If one number repeatedly calls you, contact your local telephone company and inquire about call blocking features on your phone. Never provide personal information such as Social Security numbers, passwords and account numbers over the phone. If you receive a call from someone seeking personal information, hang up and call the official number from the agency/company/account statement and find out if they truly requested that information from you.

3. Sweepstakes Scams / Jamaican Lottery Scams (99 complaints)

What: Victims are led to believe they have won a Jamacian lottery or brand new car. In order to claim the prize they need to pay money to cover processing fees and taxes. People are instructed not to tell family so it will be a surprise. If victims resist, scammers call back, posing as American government officials to “solve the crime.” In some cases, the scam turns into a romance scam where the caller tries to build a relationship with the victim over the phone and asks for money.

How: Telephone; often “spoofed”, starting with the “876” area code for Jamaica. Sometimes “winners” are contacted by email.

Tips & tricks: Never give your personal details (name, Social Security number, credit card details etc.) to an organization that you don’t know. Also in emails: beware of clicking any links or opening attachments. These might contain malware or viruses that can infect your device and steal personal information.

“It won’t happen to me…”

Perhaps you now think: “The statistics show that it happens but I never have problems using the Internet! I use strong passwords and I shop and take care of my finances online...This won’t happen to me.” Luckily, you are probably right! Unfortunately, scams keep getting more professional so it’s better to be safe than sorry. Luckily you - and your family - can do numerous things to protect and enhance your safety online.

  • If you don’t trust something: talk about it with friends, family or someone else.

  • If you prefer, you can talk with a FTC complaint assistant online by using the chat function here. Or you can call the AARP Fraud Fighter Call Center at (800)-646-2283 toll-free. Finally there is also the Senior Fraud Hotline from the US Senate Special Committee on Aging, that can be reached at (855)-303-9470 or online via this form.

  • Avoid clicking links or opening email attachments from senders that you do not know or did not expect email from. If you want to assess if the link is fraudulent or not, you can hover your cursor above it and see what https:// address it refers to. If the link does not refer to an official website, then do not click on it.

  • If you are browsing the web and a pop-up appears asking for your credit card details: stay calm, search for the closing sign, close the tab and do not share any personal information.

  • If it’s too good to be true, it probably is. Winning a lottery? Selected for a specific cruise ship? Usually this is a fake story that will eventually lead to you transferring money to scammers somewhere far away.

  • If you have become a victim of scammers: don’t be afraid to talk about it. This happens a lot and you are not to blame! Do report your experience with law enforcement quickly: a complaint can be filed and damage can then be limited.

  • Sign up for free scam alerts from the FTC at ftc.gov/scams. Get the latest tips and advice about scams sent to your email. Consider the National Do Not Call Registry. Visit donotcall.gov and register your phone number. Similarly, if you have an email account, consider removing it from the national registry here. It will reduce the amount of email advertisements and reduce chances of being contacted by a scammer.

  • You can also file a complaint to the Federal Trade Commission here. Forward any phishing email to phishing-report@us-cert.gov

  • Whether your parent is an avid internet user or not: talk openly to them about online financial frauds and scams. Make time to show them what a possible scam email looks like and what they should look out for.

  • If your parent is a victim of online scammers, talk about it with them and don’t blame them. They probably feel guilty and ashamed of their actions already.

  • If you or your parent has become a victim of Internet fraud: report it to the authorities; e.g. by reporting to the Internet Crime Complaint Center.

  • You or your parents can call the AARP Fraud Fighter Call Center at 800-646-2283 toll-free.

Written by

Roos Middelkoop

Roos is a graduate student from the Netherlands who holds a First Class B.A. (Hons) in Anthropology, Psychology and a minor in Statistics (University College Roosevelt, the Netherlands). Currently, she is wrapping up her M.Sc. in Research Psychology (KU Leuven, Belgium). She has worked on research projects both in the Netherlands and with other institutions (Stellenbosch University, South-Africa, Cambridge University, United Kingdom), also investigating the role of technology on society and psychological well-being. Besides doing research, she has experience in teaching, organizing events and PR. Roos will be spending the summer in Washington D.C. and is enrolled in the Fund for American Studies’ Economics and Public Policy program.