Watch Out for These 12 Scams Targeting Seniors


Scams that target seniors can be especially profitable for thieves because the elderly often have a lifetime worth of savings squirreled away. The FBI notes that seniors are vulnerable also because their generation was raised to be polite and trusting, and with age taking a toll on memory, they often make poor witnesses after the fact. Indeed, a 2013 study by the FINRA Investor Education Foundation found that those 65 or older are 34 percent more likely to be the target of scams than are individuals in their 40s.

According to the Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) annual report for 2014, scams involving intimidation and extortion cost those aged 50 and over an estimated $9.5 million and those involving real estate fraud cost seniors $12.6 million. But everyone should be wary. Policy changes and crises also serve as springboards for scammers eager to fleece people. After the Boston bombing in 2013 and the Haiti earthquake in 2010, fake charities netted thousands of dollars supposedly intended to help victims. AARP reports that scammers use the Affordable Care Act as a basis to con folks out of personal information and money.


Some scams start with a phone call. A recent case involved a company that called seniors (even those listed on the National Do Not Call Registry) to hawk a pendant for 24-hour medical-alert monitoring. The device was sometimes shipped and invoiced absent an order, and a Federal Trade Commission report notes that the company frequently threatened legal action and verbally abused seniors who didn't pay. Other telemarketing scams involve low-cost drugs or vitamins.


Another scam that often starts with a phone call, this one relies on a sense of hope rather than fear. Victims are told they've won a lottery or other large prize, but first they must transfer money to cover the accompanying taxes and fees.


Often directed at the elderly by perpetrators who lever the term "Medicare," this scam seeks personal information. There have been schemes in which a mobile "healthcare lab" parks at retirement homes, malls, or health clubs and fake or unnecessary tests are administered on "patients" and their identifying information is used to bill insurance companies and Medicare. Similar rackets involving unneeded medical equipment also target seniors.


In the "grandparent scam" elderly individuals are called by impersonators claiming to be either a grandchild who has run into financial or legal difficulties while in another country or a lawyer or United States official at a foreign embassy. The targeted senior is begged not to tell the grandchild's parents and to wire money to a bail bondsman. The scammers often call from other countries and use a fake telephone number to hide their location.


A call from a government agency makes everyone a bit nervous, and fraudsters rely on this. One common scam is to tell the victim that they've missed jury duty, and unless they pay to remove a warrant they'll be arrested. Another, especially popular around tax time, involves telling the victim they owe taxes and need to settle up right away. The scammers can be especially persistent and tricky, making the caller ID read "IRS" and arranging for follow-up calls by the "police." Remember that the Internal Revenue Service communicates through the mail and will not initiate a phone call even if someone does owe taxes.


Because a small part of all of us prefers to be young forever, fake products promising youthful vibrancy and breakthrough treatments with no side effects hold appeal. Some may be harmless sugar pills that hurt only the victim's wallet but others, such as fake Botox, can cause temporary paralysis or other physical harm. Schemes involving the sale of cheap counterfeit prescription drugs also target seniors and sometimes cause serious injury.


A retirement nest egg that grows can be the hook for deceitful investment "opportunities." These may be pyramid, Ponzi, or advance-fee schemes, or the now infamous "419" fraud in which a foreign national (often a "Nigerian prince") requests money and finagles access to personal and financial data with the lure of sharing his immense wealth. Advance fee schemes typically involve the sale of a product or service or arranging a so-called profitable venture in exchange for a finder's fee. Of course, once the fee is paid the scammer disappears.


Funerals can be expensive when everything goes well, even more so when scammers are out to steal from the families of the deceased. In one scenario, widowers are targeted and told that their spouse had outstanding debts that must be settled. Or, the scammer may appear at the widow's doorstep with a pay-on-delivery package that was supposedly ordered by the deceased. The con artists find widowed spouses by browsing public obituary listings or snooping at funeral homes. Sometimes the funeral home is the perpetrator and tacks on additional fees or forcefully upsells unnecessary items (such as an expensive casket for a cremation).


Sometimes referred to as the "sweetheart" scam, scammers target widowers using online dating sites in an attempt to form a trusting relationship and then steal from them. The con artists may make up a heartbreaking story and ask for financial assistance, request that the target be a cosignatory, or even convince the target to sign over his or her power of attorney, allowing the perpetrator to take out a home equity loan.


Many people have their life savings tied to the equity in their home, making it a prime target for thieves. Reverse mortgages are a popular way for seniors to take cash out of their house but still be able to live in it. Related scams come in many forms, from excessive fees hidden in the fine print to failing to disclose the potential for the seniors to lose their home.


In this home-related scenario, scammers case a neighborhood looking for elderly residents and then knock on the door posing as handymen. They point out a few things that they insist need repair. Payment may be demanded up front, and if the work is done at all it's often unlicensed and sloppy.


Online scams don't necessarily target seniors, but those less familiar with technology are more susceptible. Phishing, the attempt to steal sensitive information online by posing as someone else, is a popular means of attack. Emails from supposedly official organizations, including governments and large businesses, ask recipients to change their password, update account information, or pay an outstanding debt. The scammers can come away with access to the victim's accounts, identity, and a quick payday. Sometimes, simply clicking on a link is enough to infect a computer with malicious software that can later be used to steal personal information.