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How Swindlers Are Scamming The Elderly Online: A Senior’s Guide To Online Safety

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Online scammers are always thinking up of new and inventive ways to take people’s money. This often means targeting vulnerable parts of the population such as the elderly. With their lack of tech savvy, conditions that can affect mental sharpness, and a general sense of trust, it’s a little too easy for seniors to get defrauded on the Internet. What kinds of scams should you look out for?

Seniors tend to fall prey to the following online swindles:

  • Phishing scams
  • Sweetheart swindlers (romance swindles)
  • Catfishing elderly victims
  • The grandparent scam
  • Online shopping scams
  • Senior care phone calls (spam call from senior benefits companies)
  • Ads at the top of search engine results lists
  • Healthcare scams, Medical alert robocalls, and “smishing” credit card or bank texts
  • New scams using Siri, Google Home and Alexa

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

Protecting The Elderly From Financial Abuse – Scams To Look Out For

The following scams are all Internet-based. While not all seniors go online, a 2017 report from Pew Research Center that was cited through CNN found that up to 42 percent of seniors had their own smartphones. Back in 2013, only 18 percent of seniors had these tech devices, so there was a 24 percent increase between 2013 and 2017. We’re sure that number is even higher now in 2019.

Clearly, seniors are going online. They have smartphones and many have computers, laptops, or tablets and iPads. Thus, they can become victims of any one of the following online scams.

Phishing Scams And Seniors

Pronounced like “fishing”, phishing scams are one slippery mess for the person who falls victim to this type of swindle. Phishers present themselves as someone the senior can trust, which often makes the elderly person 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, credit card information and debit card PIN numbers, or sometimes even bank account 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 a victim 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 scam, the phishers created emails that looked very close to the ones that could be generated by Wells Fargo.  Anyone who received this email would have a hard time telling it from a real one from the bank because of the Wells Fargo logo and wording that sounds “official” at first glance.

The email told people they had 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 didn’t, the email warned they would permanently lose access to the account. You can bet that many people jumped on that and clicked the link not knowing they were being scammed.

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

Sweetheart Swindlers (Romance Swindles)

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 romance swindles. 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 travel to wherever the senior lives. The problem is, the sweetheart swindler 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 in love, they often gladly open their checkbooks.

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 identity theft. Aside from personal losses, your senior risks a broken heart if they take up with an online catfish.

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.

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.

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.

Senior Care Phone Calls (Spam Call From Senior Benefits Companies)

Besides the Grandparent Scam, seniors are also susceptible to spam calls through senior benefits companies. Well, it may seem like a senior benefits company, but it’s really just a scammer with a computer program that calls relentlessly.

To illustrate, lately we’ve gotten several phone messages at our house, informing us that we need to return the call because there has been an error in our Social Security benefits. I know this is a scam because no one in my house is anywhere near the age where we can collect Social Security, but you can see how a trusting senior might think the call is legitimate.

By dialing from different numbers at all hours of the day or night and leaving messages like this, a scammer can scare the senior into answering or returning the phone call. Once they have the senior on the line, the scammer asks for sensitive information pertaining to the elder’s pension or benefits. If they can get info like the senior’s credit card info or other financial details, they surely will as well.

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!

Healthcare Scams, Medical Alert Robocalls, And “Smishing” Credit Card Or Bank Texts

Yes, we realize that robocalls and texts are not done online, but rather over the phone – however we thought it was important to give seniors the information about some of the other scams that are out there.

One thing to keep in mind is that scams all ask you to ACT NOW!!! They don’t want you to have a chance to think about things, so they tell you “this is a limited time offer” or “I can only give you this ______ if you agree to it right now in this phone call.” If urgency is required, DON’T ACT on it! Any legitimate company will give you a chance to think things over before acting.

Healthcare Scams

In a healthcare scam, a senior will get a phone call saying something like they need a new Medicare card or health insurance card. Or they may be told there is a discount on their insurance if they act on the phone call. Then, they go on to ask for date of birth or the social security number.

Before asking, call Medicare (1-800-MEDICARE) to verify or look online to see if there are scams going around that sound like the phone call you received. I often will put the caller’s phone number into my internet browser or do a Google search on the phone number and, many times, it will come up as a reported scam phone number.

Medical Alert Robocalls

Robocallers are certainly annoying, but sometimes they can be terrifying, too. As I just mentioned in the section above, how many times have you gotten a call claiming to be from a loan company, the Internal Revenue Service, or even the FBI? Many adults know these calls are fake, but trusting seniors might not and medical alert robocalls can seem trustworthy.

These medical alert robocalls tell the senior they could get a personal medical alert system for free, says The Senior List. Sometimes, the scammer will take it a step further by mentioning that the senior could also receive something else – say, grocery coupons valued up to a $1,000. That’s a tough offer for seniors on a fixed income to turn down, and so, many seniors jump at the chance to get something for free.

The Senior List goes on to mention that this scam began sometime in 2018 and, sadly, still seems to be running strong.

Smishing Credit Card Or Bank Texts

fraudulent text message example
Image courtesy of Wells Fargo

I have gotten several of these fake texts, 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 didn’t, because it would have possibly given the scammers access to my 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 and call Customer Service to ask if any texts have been sent to them.

Scams On Siri, Alexa and Google Home

The newest scam practice now involve the use of voice activated devices such as Siri, Alexa and Google Home.

This is how it works:

  • A user asks their device to search for a business to call them
  • The scammers have paid to promote fake business entries for that business
  • Alexa or Google Home or Siri then call the fake phone number thinking it’s the valid one
  • The scammers then ask for remote access to your computer, direct you to a fake website, talk you into purchasing special promotional gift cards, etc.

Google and Amazon are working to stop this type of scam but of course, it all takes time.

“These scammers use a wide range of deceptive techniques to try to game our system,” Ethan Russell, product director for Google Maps acknowledged at the time. “As we shut them down, they change their techniques, and the cycle continues.” – Forbes.com

What To Do If You Have Been Scammed Online

After reading through the above list of scams, you may be thinking that your senior is embroiled in one or even several. What can you do for them? We recommend you begin by reading through the information in this section.

Where To Report Financial Abuse Of The Elderly

Upon discovering that your senior has been the victim of financial abuse at the hands of a scammer, you’re going to want to report it. Here are some resources to help you do so:

  • The United States Department of Justice: The DOJ has an Elder Fraud Initiative as part of their Consumer Protective Branch. They also have an Elder Abuse Resource Financial Roadmap you can follow to begin reporting the incident. This Roadmap lets you choose who did the scamming, the extent of the scam, and the consequences of the scam. Then the Roadmap directs you to the right party to contact to file a report.
  • AARP Foundation: The AARP Foundation’s Report Fraud page, you will find a slew of phone numbers to call after discovering senior financial abuse. These include contacts for the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, the FTC Do Not Call Registry, Social Security Administration, and the Internet Crime Complaint Center.
  • National Adult Protective Services Association: NAPSA provides elder financial exploitation resources. Thus, they may be able to offer some assistance or support after an online scam affects your senior.

How To Report A Scammer To The Police

Just because it happened online doesn’t make it any less of a real crime. You’re going to want to do as much as you can to get justice for your senior. At the very least, you will want their financial information recovered and protected. Ideally, you’d appreciate if it the scammer went to jail, too, but we all know that it’s sometimes hard to track a scammer down.

All justice begins with going to the police, so the first step is to file a report with the local police department that serves the area where your senior loved one resides. The police will then investigate the crime, so it’s important for you to have as much pertinent information as possible.

Besides the police, we also recommend you connect with the Federal Bureau of Investigation Internet Crime Complaint Center or IC3. As a third party, you can reach out on behalf of your senior and lodge a formal complaint. If the senior feels up to it, they can complain themselves.

To report a scam with the IC3, you must provide the following information:

  • The name, email address, telephone number, and physical address of the victim
  • The email header of any email correspondence the scammer may have sent
  • Details and information pertinent to the crime
  • Any contact information for the scammer, including their IP address, website URL, email address, telephone number, address, and their name if you have it
  • The information of any financial transactions that may have occurred, including the recipient of the money, the amount of money, the transaction date, and the account name or number

Protect Seniors Online

Even if you live with a senior loved one, it can be difficult to stop them from falling prey to online scammers. We recommend having periodic discussions about what can happen online. Talk about the newest scams, ask questions about what the senior is doing online. Who are they talking to? Is someone asking them for money?

Other safety measures you can look into that can help with online and phone scams include:

  • Password basics
  • DoNotCall Registry

Password Basics

Make sure you or your senior aren’t using easily guessable passwords or ones with easy-to-find information for online accounts. By this, I mean that you should not use passwords with number or letter sequences, such as 112233 or “fghijk”. Also, never use things that compromise your online security, such as your name (or your spouse’s, child’s or pet’s names),birthdays, anniversaries, your home address or phone number. or phrases like “password” or “iloveyou”.

Read our article, What Is A Good Way For Seniors To Remember Passwords, for more information about choosing online passwords.

DoNotCall Registry

To help keep a loved one (or yourself) from getting robocalls, register all their phone numbers with the national Do Not Call Registry (click here for their website). This is a free service and, believe me, it greatly reduces marketing phone calls. I have registered our phone numbers and had put my parent’s number on the registry when I was helping to take care of them.

Technically, your phone numbers stay on the Do Not Call registry forever, but I usually put them back on the registry again bout every 3 to 4 years. It seems like that’s about the time I start getting an increase in phone calls, so I feel like re-registering the phone number “updates” the list. I recently did this again when we received 17 phone calls from the same caller within a one hour period (yes, I counted).

After your number has been on the registry for more than 31 days, you can report any new marketing calls to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) by clicking here. You’ll need to provide them with the phone number that shows on your caller ID, regardless of whether you think it might be spoofed or faked. Also report any number you’re told to call back.

The FTC notes that “if you’ve already added your phone number to the Do Not Call Registry and are still getting a lot of unwanted calls, odds are the calls are from scammers.” You can learn more about robocalls at https://www.consumer.ftc.gov/articles/0259-robocalls.

Keep in mind that, even if you are on the Do Not Call Registry, you can still legally receive:

NoMoRobo

NoMoRobo promises to stop (or at least reduce) your unwanted robo calls. Similar to the DoNotCall Registry, you visit the NoMoRobo website and register your landline phone number (free) or cell phone number ($1.99/month). The service does let certain robocalls through – the examples they give are calls for school closings, doctor’s offices, or prescription reminders.

They appear to be endorsed by such institutions as CBS, ABC, NBC, and the Wall Street Journal.

There is some set up required online after verifying your email address. I also had to go into my account with my phone provider and then wait for NoMoRobo to call me to verify my phone number (via a robocall, oddly enough!). It wasn’t difficult but seniors who are uncomfortable with the computer can have a relative or friend complete the process easily enough.

Once you are signed up, the only requirement is that you do not pick up the phone until the second ring (NoMoRobo needs to analyze the call on the first ring). If you hear the phone ring once and then not again, you know that was a blocked call.

I only found out about NoMoRobo recently and I just signed up because we literally had more than a dozen robocalls this past weekend. I’ll update this post in a month or so after I have had a chance to see if it really does help. Until then, you might want to give them a look.

Conclusion

While lots of seniors don’t use the Internet, those who do are at risk of online scams. Many scammers will target seniors because they’re naïve and not very smart about technology. A senior could unwittingly give money to the con artist or provide sensitive personal information without realizing the person they’re dealing with is scamming them.

That’s why it’s your responsibility as an adult child or senior caretaker to know about the online scams that target seniors. The resources we provided in this article should also give you a good direction to start as you consider recourse. Good luck!

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