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8 Online Scams Taking Advantage Of Seniors

The following scams are all Internet-based.

Read about other types of financial scams targeting older adults (that are not necessarily online scams).

1. Phishing Scams And Seniors

Pronounced like “fishing”, phishing scams are one slippery mess for older persons who fall victim to this type of swindle.

Phishers present themselves as someone the senior can trust, such as IT administrators, online payment processors, banks, auction sites, social media platforms, which can make elderly people fall for the scam.

Then, the phisher convinces the senior to pass along their most sensitive data.

This can include computer passwords and usernames, your social security number, credit card information and debit card PIN numbers, or sometimes even bank account numbers and account access information.

Most phishing scams involve the use of instant messaging and email spoofing. Phishers also are adept at creating fake websites that look exactly like the real thing.

wells fargo email phishing scam
image courtesy of Wells Fargo

A great example of this is the Wells Fargo phishing scams that have circulated several times in recent years and lured thousands of unsuspecting people to take the bait and give up their sensitive information.

In this type of fraud, the phishers create emails that look very close to the ones that could be generated by Wells Fargo.

Anyone who receives these unsolicited emails would likely have a hard time telling them from a real one from the bank because of the Wells Fargo logo and wording that sounds “official” at first glance.

The email tells people they have been locked out of their Wells Fargo account, therefore they should click the link provided in the email immediately, in order to verify their account.

If they don’t, the email warns that the person will permanently lose access to the account.

Remember that clicking on ANY link in an email could mean you are unknowingly downloading malware or viruses!

In another version of the scam, you might give the scam artist access to your account or personal information, particularly if you are asked to log in to something like a bank account after you click the link.

Never click on an email link! Instead, call the company that supposedly sent the email (Wells Fargo, in this case) using a legitimate phone number that you have found on their OFFICIAL website (often, companies will designate their actual accounts as “official” in search results).

You can often spot a phishing email by looking for several things:

  • The email salutation reads, “Dear Customer” or “Dear Sir or Madam”, instead of, “Dear (your name)”.
  • There is an urgent call to action – something along the lines of, “if you do not do this within 24 hours…” or “you must verify your account immediately in order to avoid it being closed permanently…” The scammers want to instill panic, so that you will react before you have time to think things through.
  • The email contains misspelled words or sentences that don’t read correctly (i.e.: “Please do you click on enclosed link to avoid supspension.”).
  • Check the sender’s email address. In the case of the email in the image above, the sender’s address is WellsOnlineBank2@comcast.net. Most legitimate companies will use their name as their email address (i.e. CustomerService@wellsfargo.com).
  • Also check the URL (website address) of an active hyperlink by hovering over it with your mouse’s cursor (you’ll know a link is active because it will be a different color than the rest of the email). Often, the URL will look suspicious, such as www.DiscoverCard123.com.

2. Smishing

fraudulent text message example
Image courtesy of Wells Fargo

Just like the phishing emails, these fraudulent messages – called “smishing” texts – look like legitimate texts from a bank or credit card company.

As with phishing emails, you can spot a phishing text by:

  • needing to do something immediately to avoid “being locked out” or “deactivated”.
  • the fact that the recipient did not prompt the text (for example: the senior had not tried to sign in on their account and gotten the text immediately afterward)
  • looking for unusual characters or punctuation in the text, such as all capital letters, or spotting arrows or exclamation points
  • the text was sent by an actual 10-digit (or 7-digit) phone number. Banks and credit card companies generally use a short code phone number about 5 numbers long.

Any combination of these red flags means you should ignore it.

If it makes you feel better to confirm that the text is fake, get the phone number of the REAL company from a statement or invoice (NOT the one in the text message!) and call Customer Service to ask if any texts have been sent to them.

3. Online Dating Scams

Are you looking for love? If so, you must stay abreast of the so-called sweetheart swindlers, also known as online dating scams.

These scammers hide behind the guise of online dating. They’re not really as interested in meeting you as they are in taking your money, though.

Most of the time, sweetheart swindlers will say something along the lines of “I’m feeling a deep connection” to their target (or some variation). They talk about how much they want to meet the person and are ready to travel to wherever the target person lives.

The problem is, they “just need a little bit of money” to get there. The trap is set and the poor elder ends up wiring money for a trip that will never take place.

Over time, swindlers will ask for hundreds, if not thousands of dollars from their victims.

Not all at once, though – that may look too suspicious – but they will gradually lead their target deeper and deeper into their snare.

And, because the victim is lonely, they often gladly open their checkbooks.

4. Catfishing Senior Victims

Catfishing also involves online dating, but not in the same capacity as the sweetheart swindle.

With catfishing, the scammer pretends to be someone they’re not.

They often take someone else’s picture from social media without permission – typically an attractive person’s image. Then, they claim they are that person.

Sometimes money exchanges will happen with a catfishing scam, sometimes the scammer is after personal information and identity theft.

5. The Grandparent Scam

According to the Consumer Federation of America or CFA, the Grandparent Scam goes like this…

A person posing as a family member or close friend gets in touch with the senior. They request money to cover some type of an emergency.

For example, they might pose as a grandchild and say they were at a club and accidentally taken to jail, so they need bail money.

Or maybe they would pose as a grandchild who went somewhere on Spring Break and was robbed, so they need airfare to come home. You get the idea.

Today’s scammers have the ability to use voice-cloning technology, so you may really believe that your child or grandchild is talking (read this article to see how easy it is for scammers to use a voice that convinces you it is your relative)!

Most of the time, the scammer will ask for money to cover the emergency via MoneyGram or Western Union, making it obvious it’s a fraud – if you know what to look out for.

To avoid falling victim, ALWAYS call a family member to verify the child’s / grandchild’s whereabouts before wiring money or ask the caller to answer questions only the real child would know the answers to.

6. Scammed: Online Shopping

With one of these, the scammer creates a shopping website that looks just like the real deal – with the intention of stealing your financial data. It’s sometimes hard to tell the difference because even the website URL address looks legit.

To recognize an online shopping scam, keep your eyes open for two telltale signs:

  • The first is how the retailer asks for payment. They will want wire transfers, preloaded money card info, or a money order. They will not ask for a credit or debit card like most retailers.
  • Also, these retailers will knock the prices of their items way down – even expensive goods like electronics, jewelry, and clothing. It seems too good to be true because it is.

7. Ads At The Top Of Search Engine Results Lists

My elderly neighbor fell for this one recently.

They had been having trouble with their computer and are customers of AT & T, so she did a Google search online, looking for the tech support phone number for their service provider.

She knew that many web browsers, such as Google and Bing, post a couple of paid ads at the top of their search engine results. But she didn’t realize the ads might not go to a legitimate company.

So she clicked on the very first listing in the search engine results (which was an ad) and got a phone number – for a scammer.

Not realizing her error, she called the fake company and explained her computer issue.

The fake tech support person told her he would have to take over her computer via remote access, in order to see what the problem was.

Still unaware that she wasn’t dealing with her real service provider, she allowed him into her computer.

She grew suspicious when an hour and a half passed and the fake tech support person still hadn’t completed the repair.

When she finally questioned him, he was suddenly “finished,” and then he announced that she owed him more than $600 for the “repair”.

That’s when it fully hit her that she’d been conned.

The sad ending to the story is that she actually paid the scammer the money he requested because, “He’d had access to my computer for hours and I didn’t know what he had been able to get into. What if he had my bank account information or could get into my credit cards now? I thought it was safer to pay the “ransom” than to refuse.”

She spent the rest of the day on the phone with the police, her banks, and her credit card companies – closing accounts and getting new credit cards issued.

I should tell you that this is not someone who is computer-illiterate, either.

She worked for AT & T for more than two decades and uses a computer with ease.

She just didn’t realize that the first results on a search engine page could be paid ads that scammers can fabricate to make it look like you are clicking on a legitimate website.

8. Tech Support Fraud

In this one, the senior is contacted either by a phone call or a pop up on their computer screen.

The message or the caller claim they are a technical support person and that there is some problem or fraud attempt on their computer or personal information (bank account, financial account, insurance, etc.)

BUT – in order for the issue to get corrected, the caller requires access into your computer.

If you say yes to the caller or click “yes” on the pop up, malware gets installed on your computer, which allows the perpetrator to gain access to all the information you have stored on it.

What Steps Should You Take If You’ve Been Scammed Online?

There are some basic steps to take once you’ve identified the scam and realize that you’ve been an unwilling participant in an online scam.

  1. If you gave out your banking information – contact your bank immediately.
  2. If you gave out your credit card information – contact your credit card company or bank that issued that card.
  3. Call the Federal Trade Commission at 1-877-382-4357 or go to their online form.
  4. File a police report with local law enforcement in your area.

Read more details here about the steps to take if you’ve been scammed online and how to help to protect yourself in the future.

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