Money transfer scams, government imposters, fake charities, even scammers pretending to be a loved one in danger — in this cyber age, cybercrimes are more common than ever. Anyone can fall victim to these crimes, but older adults, especially those with dementia, are the most-targeted group.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation Internet Crime Report showed that of the cybercrimes reported where age was identified, seniors lost $1.68 billion in 2021. Because Alzheimer’s disease affects memory and cognitive capabilities, individuals living with it are at an even higher risk of exploitation.
“Scam artists love to prey on senior citizens for one main reason – they’re trustworthy,” says Kelsey Simasko, elder law attorney at Simasko Law in Mount Clemens, Michigan. “Seniors come from the era where they leave the doors unlocked, they call people on the phone, and they trust someone’s word. Add this to the fact that many senior citizens are taking full advantage of electronic communications and social media.”
Scammers can steal your loved one’s identity, tap into their bank accounts and access their credit cards, rack up debt and drain their savings, and trick them into thinking that they or someone they love is in danger. The damage can be detrimental and leave a long-lasting financial and emotional impact.
Fortunately, family caregivers can help protect their loved one and their finances.
“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. A vigilant caregiver can be the difference between a senior keeping hundreds of thousands of dollars in their bank account,” says Simasko.
Learn about these three types of cyber scams that commonly target older adults, how to identify them, and ways to reduce your loved one’s risk of becoming a victim.
The Grandparent scam
Scammers know that it’s every grandparent’s worst nightmare to receive a call that their grandchild is in danger and needs help — that’s why the grandparent scam is one of the most prevalent scams affecting elders today.
These scammers call elderly people who are grandparents and say something along the lines of: “Hi, Grandma, do you know who this is?” The scammer — pretending to be their grandchild — then says they are facing an urgent financial situation (car repairs, a medical emergency, overdue rent, or jail bond) and need money immediately. Sometimes, the caller claims to be a police officer, lawyer, or doctor trying to help the grandchild. In any case, the scammer usually uses high-pressure tactics to play on the fear and emotion of your loved one to get cash as quickly as possible.
They often ask to be paid via gift cards or money transfers, and since these payments don’t always require identification to collect, your loved one may have no way of ever recovering their money.
How to spot grandparent scams:
- Asking for money, specifically asking to wire it overseas or put it on a prepaid card
- Urgency or hurrying the interaction (“Quick, Grandma, I need the money within the next 10 minutes!”)
- Requests for your loved one to keep the call and payment a secret (“Please, I beg you not to tell mom and dad! Let’s keep this between us.)
Government imposter scams
Government impersonators target unsuspecting older adults with a call, email, or text message saying they’re with a government agency, like the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), Social Security Administration, or Medicare. Sometimes, they offer their “employee ID number.” They may even have information about your loved one, like their name or home address. This is how they trick their victims into thinking they are official government agents.
These scammers may tell your loved one they have unpaid taxes and threaten arrest or deportation if they don’t pay up immediately. Or they may say their Social Security or Medicare benefits will be cut off if they don’t immediately provide personal identifying information. If government impersonators get this information from your loved one, they can use it to commit identity theft.
How to spot government imposters:
- Messages or calls demanding bank account or credit card information, or urgent payments in cash, wire transfers, gift cards, or cryptocurrency — no government agency would ever do this.
- Even if the caller ID or the text sender says “Medicare,” it’s a scam. Medicare doesn’t contact people out of the blue to offer help with open enrollment or provide any other service.
- The Social Security Administration (SSA) also rarely contacts citizens out of the blue, and a legitimate agent won’t ask to verify a Social Security number.
- The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) initiates contact through an official letter through the U.S. Postal Service. If someone gets in touch with your loved one via e-mail, phone, or text claiming to be the IRS, it’s a scam.
Computer tech support scams
In tech support scams, a pop-up message or blank screen usually appears on a computer or phone, telling the victim their device is damaged or infected with a virus and needs fixing. It might look like an error message from your loved one’s operating system or antivirus software. When they call the support number for help, the scammer may request remote access to your loved one’s computer and/or demand a fee to repair it.
These technical support scams prey on older people’s lack of knowledge about computers and cybersecurity, and they’re becoming more frequent. The U.S. Department of Justice reports that, in 2021 alone, the Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) received 13,900 tech support fraud complaints from older victims who suffered nearly $238 million in losses.
How to spot computer tech support scams:
- Security pop-up windows with a toll-free number or link; security warnings and messages from real companies will never ask you to call a phone number or click a hyperlink.
- A phone call from a “tech support person” offering help; legitimate tech support won’t proactively seek out a customer to fix an issue.
- Requests to pay for tech support services by wiring money, putting money on a gift card, prepaid card, or cash reload card, or using cryptocurrency or a money transfer app.
Protecting Your Loved One From Cyber Scams
“It is on the caregiver to be the first line of defense against fraudulent transactions,” Simasko says, adding that caregivers can help prevent scammers from committing cybercrimes against by taking careful measures.
“Caregivers should be listening to phone calls, monitoring social media activity, and checking email conversations. At the very least, caregivers need to be checking bank records every month so they can notify financial institutions of any transactions that may have been a scam.”
Talk with your loved one about these scams and how to spot them. Explain that you are trying to keep them, their personal information, and their money safe. Whenever possible and practical, keep them involved in the process and empower them to protect their personal information.
Go over password and account security. Help your loved one create strong passwords. Consider mixing in letters, numbers, and symbols and leaving out information that would be easy to guess, such as their name or birthdate. Set up multi-factor authentication on all accounts that allow it.
Make sure their devices are protected with software. Inventory all their devices — phones, computers, tablets — and ensure the system software is up to date. Consider exploring fee-based monitoring services that can protect against internet scams, fraud, and identity theft.
Ensure their credit card accounts and bank statements are monitored regularly. If any suspicious or unauthorized activity is discovered, make sure their bank and/or credit card companies are notified immediately if any is found. Utilize credit monitoring services ike Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion.
Protect them from being contacted. Contact the national “Do Not Call” Registry at 1.888.382.1222. Remove your loved one’s name from the credit bureau’s mailing list by calling the Consumer Credit and Reporting Industry at 1.888.567.8688.
Here is a list of cyber security reminders you can print out and hang in your loved one’s home to help them protect themselves:
- Do not give out personal information over the phone, especially your Social Security number, bank information, or Medicare ID number.
- If you get suspicious phone calls, hang up right away.
- Delete suspicious emails immediately — never respond, and do not click on any links or open attachments.
- If you get a suspicious text message, block the number.
- Do not click on any pop-up advertisements or suspicious hyperlinks.
- Remember: People can find information about you online and try to use it to gain your trust. Even if someone knows your full name, where you live, and information about your family and friends, that doesn’t mean they are trustworthy. If you are suspicious of an interaction with someone, end it immediately and reach out to a trusted family member or your caregiver.
Reporting cyber scams: don’t wait!
Most cybercrimes committed against seniors are not reported because the senior is either too embarrassed to report what happened, or the senior does not know they have been scammed. It’s common to feel ashamed and scared after being cheated, swindled, and stolen from.
Remind your loved one that they should not be embarrassed if they fall victim to a cyber scam — it happens to people every day. But catching it as quickly as possible is key to taking action against the scammers. By reporting the crime right away, they can help protect other people from becoming victims.
“When a senior does not report the crime, they cannot get help fixing the situation,” says Simasko.
If your loved one becomes a victim of identity theft or a consumer scam, immediately report it to your local law enforcement agency and Adult Protective Services. You can find the contact information for Adult Protective Services in your area through Eldercare Locator, a government-sponsored national resource. You may also consider contacting your state’s Attorney General’s Office and consumer protection agency.