According to the United States Senate Special Committee on Aging, older Americans lose approximately $2.9 billion per year to financial exploitation schemes. Per the United States Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the range of senior losses due to financial fraud could extend as high as $36.5 billion per year. Seniors are often targeted because they are trusting, often isolated, tend to be less technologically savvy, and usually have savings or a steady stream of retirement income, thus making them prime targets for fraudsters.

As it is suggested that Americans continue to isolate due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it is important to be aware of schemes that are targeting the elderly and know how to prevent your elderly friends and family members from falling victim to these schemes.

Top Schemes

Older Americans are currently more isolated than ever, having to protect themselves from perils of the COVID-19 virus, and this isolation can create psychological distress that unfortunately leads the elderly to be more susceptible to fraud. Per CNBC and the United States Senate, some of the top scams perpetrated against elderly are as follows:

  • The infamous IRS impersonation scam – since 2013, more than 14,700 taxpayers have lost more than $72.8 million to this scam, in which the victim receives a phone call about owing back taxes with severe punishment if left unpaid.
  • Sweepstakes scam – this scam falsely claims that a senior has won a lottery or a free vacation, but in order to receive the prize, they have to pay a fee first. This is also known as the Jamaican Lottery Scam, as many of these fake calls originate in Jamaica.
  • Grandparent scams -- a fraudster pretends to be a grandchild in distress or someone claiming to represent the grandchild as they are hospitalized or imprisoned, and the only way for the grandchild to get out of this nonexistent situation is for the relative to wire money to the scammer. In March 2018, six individuals in Iowa were arrested in connection with a grandparent scam that defrauded more than 250 victims of in excess of $750,000.
  • Romance scams – more and more Americans are utilizing online dating in order to meet potential love interests, which has led to a rise in romance scams, in which a scammer utilizes a fake identity to feign romantic interest in an unsuspecting victim, and then uses the relationship to steal money from the victim. Typically a story about some kind of fake crisis is concocted in order to convince the victim to send funds. In 2019, the Federal Trade Commission reported that consumers lost over $201 million to romance scams. Isolation can lead seniors to be more susceptible to this type of scam.
  • Social Security Impersonation – with this scam, a caller will contact a potential victim claiming to be from the Social Security Administration, alleging fraud on their account, and the fraud can only be addressed by providing personally identifiable information, like their social security number or bank account number. After having access to this information, a fraudster can then steal a victim’s identity.

While seniors and those that care for seniors need to always be aware of these types of schemes under normal circumstances, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought about more scams specifically related to the pandemic that seniors and caregivers must be aware of in order to prevent falling victim to these schemes. Some of these schemes include:

  • Fake COVID-19 products and services – these calls to potential victims typically claim that the scammer has access to in demand COVID-19 products, whether those are fake test kits, harder to get cleaning products, or now, vaccine appointments. Typically a scammer is attempting to gain access to credit card information.
  • CARES Act related scams – this scam asks victims for their bank account information in order to make a deposit related to a purported stimulus payment.
  • Charity scams – these schemes prey on the generosity and trustworthiness of the older population by seeking donations to fake charities that have some kind of relation to COVID-19 relief, and will seek personal information via either a phone call or an e-mail.
  • Continuation of the Social Security scam – the typical Social Security scam of seeking information related to a purported Social Security fraud as discussed above now includes threats related to COVID-19, for example, benefits may be decreased or suspended related to office closures due to the pandemic.

It cannot be stressed enough that the increased isolation and anxiety due to the COVID-19 pandemic leads seniors to be vulnerable to fraud, and it is important to be proactive about protecting our more vulnerable populations from these schemes.

Prevention

In December 2020, the Elder Justice Task Force of the Department of Justice, District of Puerto Rico launched an elder fraud education and prevention campaign during the COVID-19 pandemic. The goal of this campaign is to raise awareness about the different types of fraud associated with the pandemic and how to advise senior citizens and caretakers on how to report and prevent these scams. Other entities that have joined this campaign are the Postal Inspector Service, the United States Department of Health and Human Services, Office of the Inspector General, the Federal Trade Commission, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

On an individual level, now more than ever it is important to continue to remain in contact with your older relatives or friends through regular phone calls, and to discuss the importance of remaining proactive about potential fraud schemes. Be aware of any behavioral changes, as this could be a sign that an individual is experiencing financial distress. Some suggestions to avoid scams, per the Federal Communications Commission, include:

  • Not responding to phone calls or texts from unknown numbers.
  • Never sharing your personal identifiable information via e-mail or text message.
  • Understanding that the government will never call you asking for your personally identifiable information, or make threats regarding back taxes or revocation of benefits.
  • Researching the legitimacy of a charity before making a donation.
  • Never clicking any links in text messages or e-mails from unknown sources.

If you think you have been a victim of a fraud scheme, contact law enforcement immediately. You can also file a complaint with the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center.