The COVID-19 pandemic didn’t just affect seniors’ physical health, it opened them up to an entirely new wave of potential scams, according to two recent government reports.
The Federal Trade Commission estimates Americans 60 and older lost more than $600 million to fraud and scams, including more than $100 million related to COVID-19 scams, since 2015.
The recently released “Fighting Fraud” report from the Senate Special Committee on Aging reports that some of the most common COVID-19-related scams include calls and emails from people pretending to be contact tracers who then steal personal information. Other scams involve fake antibody tests and vaccines, and solicitations for “miracle cures.”
The same report also noted an increase in romance scams, with complaints increasing from 8,500 in 2015 to more than 25,000 in 2019. During the pandemic, feelings of isolation among seniors led to a rise in their susceptibility to these scams as evidenced by an increase in calls to the Senate committee’s fraud line to report romance scams.
Top five scams targeted to seniors
While COVID-19 opened up new avenues for scammers, other fraudulent activity is also causing problems for seniors. The Senate committee reports over the past five years, five types of scams are most commonly reported among the senior population:
Government impersonation scams – These scams often start with a phone call where a person pretends to be from a government agency, often the Internal Revenue Service or the Social Security Administration. The scammers demand payment or personal information and can often threaten dire consequences if the senior does not make immediate payment.
Sweepstakes scams – In sweepstakes scams, someone will contact the senior via phone or mail to inform the recipient they have won a prize. However, the “winner” will have to pay taxes or fees of some sort – which they will need to wire money to the sweepstakes company – to receive their prize.
Illegal robocalls and unsolicited phone calls – Scammers often use robocalls to identify potential victims who will answer the phone. A popular ruse is the impending lawsuit scam where seniors receive a recorded call telling them there’s a warrant out for their arrest. The senior is then instructed to make a payment to resolve the issue.
Computer tech scams – These scams prey on seniors’ often limited knowledge of technology. A caller will pose as a representative of a well-known tech company and inform the senior their computer is infected with a virus. When the senior allows the scammer to remotely access their computer to “fix” the virus, the scammer can lock the computer and hold it for ransom or steal personal information.
Grandparent scams – In these scams, imposters pretend to be the senior’s grandchild or a police officer who is with the grandchild. They demand money to help the child out of a fake emergency such as paying a hospital bill or getting out of jail. They encourage the grandparent to send the money as quickly as possible through a wire transfer, but they can also ask for gift cards or cash.
The best prevention against elder fraud is to educate seniors about the different types of fraud and how to protect themselves from it. Simple rules like never giving out bank account or Social Security numbers over the phone – and not answering phone calls from unknown numbers – can protect seniors.
While educating seniors is an effective step against elder fraud, the government is also working to locate and prosecute scammers. The recently released “Annual Report to Congress on Department of Justice Activities to Combat Elder Fraud and Abuse” outlines the steps law enforcement is taking to reduce fraud against seniors.
From arresting and prosecuting the people who move money for scammers – often called money mules – to educating seniors about fraud to better training law enforcement in effective ways to handle crimes against seniors, the Justice Department is taking an active role in combating elder fraud, according to the report.
The report highlights the variety of services the department offers to seniors who have been victims of fraud, including asset recovery and access to competent legal services.
From government prosecution and senior education to law enforcement training on the issue of elder fraud, it will take a combined effort to combat fraudulent schemes against seniors.
During a recent Senate hearing on fraud, Odete Williamson, an attorney with the National Consumer Law Center, addressed the issue:
“Older consumers need the highest level of protection from fraud and scams,” she said. “Government, businesses and advocates must protect older adults from these devastating scams and robustly prosecute those who have victimized consumers.”