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8 Online Scams Taking Advantage of Seniors

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Unfortunately, online scammers often can easily take advantage of senior citizens. If older people are non techie or if they are suffering from cognitive decline, and/or if they are too trusting, they make easy targets for con artists.

Knowing how these common scams work is the first step to protecting yourself.

 

8 Online Scams Seniors Tend to Fall For:

  • Phishing scams
  • Smishing scams
  • Online dating scams (sweetheart scam)
  • Catfishing elderly victims
  • The grandparent scam
  • Online shopping scams
  • Ads at the top of search engine results lists
  • Tech Support Fraud

In this article, we will go over each of the above online scams, telling you what they are and what to look out for. Whether you’re the senior, the an adult child of an older parent, or a caretaker for the elderly, this information will come in handy.

You can also read about other types of financial scams targeting older adults that are not necessarily online here.

The following scams are all Internet-based. The World Technology Forum reports that 70% of older Americans are now connected to the internet via a variety of tools, computers, tablets and smart phones.

Thus, this age group can become the potential victims of any one of the following 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, which often makes elderly people fall for the scam. Then, the phisher convinces the senior or other victim 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 will disguise themselves as IT administrators, online payment processors, banks, auction sites, social media platforms, and any other source elderly individuals could believe. They 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 more than once 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 created emails that looked very close to the ones that could be generated by Wells Fargo. Anyone who received these unsolicited emails would 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 elderly person will permanently lose access to the account. You can bet that many people have jumped on that and clicked the link not knowing it was a type of scam.

Remember that clicking on ANY link in an email could mean you are unknowingly downloading malware or viruses. Often, clicking a link gives 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.

To protect seniors, family members should advise them to 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 in you or your senior loved one, 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

I have gotten several of these fake text messages, myself, in just the past few weeks.

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

They look so real, in fact, that I had a hard time resisting clicking on the link in the text. Thank goodness I did, because it would have possibly given the scammers access to my financial information.

Instead, I waited until I returned home and could look up “Wells Fargo phishing scams”, where I found this information.

As with phishing emails, tell your senior loved one they can spot a phishing text by:

  • needing to do something immediately to avoid “being locked out” or “deactivated”.
  • the fact that they 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 your senior should ignore it. If it makes them feel better to confirm that the text is fake, they can 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

Is your elderly loved one looking for love? If so, both you and the senior 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 the senior as they are in taking their money, though.

Most of the time, sweetheart swindlers will say something along the lines of “feeling a deep connection” to their elderly target, knowing the senior is lonely and will likely take the bait. The con artist goes on about how much they want to meet the elder and are ready to travel to wherever the senior 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 some 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 the person they have targeted deeper and deeper into their snare. And, because the victim is lonely, they often gladly open their checkbooks.

4. Catfishing Elderly 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 pictures 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. Aside from personal losses, your senior risks a broken heart if they take up with an online catfish.

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.

Maybe they would act like a grandchild who went to another country on Spring Break and was robbed, so they need airfare to come home. You get the idea.

(Michael) Billnitzer said his office also has seen multiple cases where the “grandparent scam” has been adapted to the pandemic. In these instances, “scammers call pretending to be a grandchild and saying they have tested positive for coronavirus and need money now!” he said.

Nextaenue.org

Seniors, who might get confused when they hear a seemingly panicked relative, may really think they’re talking to a grandchild or other relative or a friend.

To complicate matters even more, those involved with the Grandparent Scam will often ring the senior late at night. This amplifies the sense of urgency while also preying on a senior’s confusion, as they were likely sleeping before getting the call.

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 scam if you know what to look out for.

UPDATE: Scammers are now using voice-cloning technology, so you may really believe that your child or grandchild is talking! 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.

Read this article to see how easy it is for scammers to use a voice that convinces you it is your relative.

6. Scammed: Online Shopping

If your senior ever does a bit of Internet shopping, they could fall into an online shopping scam. With one of these, the scammer makes a retail website that looks just like the real deal. It’s sometimes hard to tell the difference because even the website URL address looks legit.

Although it seems like a lot of items are for sale on a fake shopping site, if the senior tries to buy anything, they likely won’t get what they ordered. Instead, the scammer will steal the senior’s financial data.

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 my neighbor did a Google search online, looking for the tech support phone number for their service provider.

She didn’t realize that many web browsers are now posting a couple of paid ads at the top of their search engine results. This often leads unsuspecting users to click on the ad (which generates income for the company that owns the web browser). You can see what I mean if you look for the (very) tiny word “Ad” next to the listing (see it by the red arrow in the screenshot below?).

screenshot of search engine results

In my neighbor’s case, 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. A man promptly answered the phone with, “Tech support – how can I help you today?”

Thinking that she was talking to a legit employee, she explained her computer issue. The fake tech support person then 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. Don’t fall for this online fraud!

8. Tech Support Fraud

I have a few older friends who have fallen for tech support scams. Here’s how it usually works.

The senior is contacted either by a phone call or a pop up on their computer screen. The story is almost always the same…

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

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

The unknowing senior says yes to the caller or clicks “yes” on the pop up and before you know it – malware has been installed on their computer allowing the perpetrator to gain access to all the information they have stored.

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

There are some basic steps to take once you’ve identified 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.

Conclusion

Because of today’s online technology, it is easier than ever for elder abuse and financial fraud to take place. Older adults have to be aware that there are hundreds of ways they can lose their retirement funds to scammers.

The best way to avoid becoming the victim of a scam is to refrain from clicking on links in emails or texts. Talk with someone you trust if anyone asks you for money or it seems like you need to answer/react urgently to something involving your private information or your money.

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