One day Jimmy Love of Wichita Falls received a phone call that his grandson was in trouble. He didn’t think twice about sending $9,000 to help but soon realized he had been swindled.
“I thought my grandson was really in trouble,” Love, 81, says. “[The caller] said he had a car wreck, hit a lady, broke his nose, was in jail and needed money to get out.”
He was the victim of what’s called a grandparent scam, one of dozens of schemes that prey on people’s emotions, fears or hopes. Last year, Americans reported 3.2 million scams to the Federal Trade Commission, with losses topping $1.9 billion.
Older adults are especially vulnerable, experts say, because scammers exploit those who may be isolated, lonely or not tech-savvy.
Today’s scams run the gamut from old-fashioned mailbox theft to sophisticated online hoaxes. Regardless of the method, scammers often mimic legitimate businesses and government agencies, using fake caller IDs and high-pressure tactics to steal money or personal information to commit fraud or identity theft.
“Isolated older adults are gifts to financial predators … who are savvy enough to know this,” says Julie Krawczyk, director of the Senior Source’s Elder Financial Safety Center in Dallas.
Older adults also lose more money in scams. The FTC says the median loss for people 80 and older was $1,600 vs. $600 for those 60-69 and $379 for those 30-39. Losses, however, can reach five and six figures.
Low-tech scams: Simple and risky
1. Grandparent appeal: Scammers call to say your grandchild has gotten in trouble or had an accident and needs money but doesn’t want the parents to know. The scammers glean personal details about you, your family and friends from your social media profile and posts, Krawczyk says. “I was talking to a boy who sounded just like my grandson, and he called me Papa, which is what my grandson calls me,” says Love, the Wichita Falls victim. Sometimes the scammers use a friend’s name instead of a grandchild’s.
2. Home improvement fraud: The Better Business Bureau’s second riskiest scam for people 65 and older is common in North Texas because of the many storms and tornadoes that damage property. Someone typically appears at your door offering a quick repair, but they require upfront money and either never return, do shoddy work or hike the price afterward.
3. Impersonation: Fraudsters call you pretending to be well-known government agencies, companies or organizations. The BBB ranks the Social Security Administration as the top impersonation scheme, but the Internal Revenue Service, Publisher’s Clearinghouse and Medicare also are common. This year, the Census Bureau and FBI warned about impersonators trying to steal Social Security numbers. Criminals, for example, pretend to be FBI agents and even spoof the FBI headquarters’ phone number on caller ID.
4. Fake checks: A stranger phones, saying he’ll send you a check connected to a phony job listing, business opportunity, online classified advertisement or sweepstakes prize. You are told you must send some of the money to them or another person by wire transfer or gift card to cover taxes, fees or supplies. Fake checks may look legitimate, even with a financial institution’s name on them, or they may be real checks from bank accounts of identity theft victims.
5. Mailbox theft: Criminals steal mail from your mailbox hoping to find checks, credit cards or valuable information. Seniors moving into smaller homes or new housing arrangements are vulnerable to fake change-of-address forms filed with the U.S. Postal Service, says Charity Lacey, spokeswoman for the Identity Theft Recovery Center. She suggests using a post office box or a locked mailbox as a precaution. Consumers also can register for the free Informed Delivery service by the USPS that provides a digital preview of incoming mail and packages.
High tech: Digital dangers
1. Headline scares: Criminals like to make money from news, such as the coronavirus pandemic or Census 2020. They may offer advice, provide local updates, sell products or seek donations via websites, emails, texts and social media posts, but it’s all fake. In March, the Missouri attorney general sued televangelist Jim Bakker for hawking a fake coronavirus cure on television and online.
2. Romance: This is the BBB’s third-riskiest scam for people 65 and older. Sweet-talking con artists use fake profiles on dating sites and social networks like Facebook. They may claim to be a doctor, military member or oil rig worker living overseas. They start a relationship and eventually ask you to wire money or send gift cards to help them out of a crisis. “Romance scams are on the rise,” says Phylissia Clark, spokeswoman for the BBB of North Central Texas. “Emotional states are preyed on.” More men than women fall for this fraud, she says.
3. Questionable investments: If an investment opportunity sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Scammers use false information in digital promotions or emails to promise big returns from investments, such as cryptocurrencies and real estate developments.
4. Tech support: Using online ads and computer pop-ups, fraudsters claiming to represent technology companies like Microsoft and Apple try to persuade you to upgrade or renew your Windows program or buy unnecessary tech help to fix a computer bug or virus. Don’t click on links or open attachments in unsolicited email. Never call the phone number in a web pop-up.
5. Fake classified ads: Cybercriminals mimic real companies in fake job listings on online job boards, especially for home-based work. They conduct false interviews through a teleconferencing app and request a copy of your credentials or require you to pay upfront for background checks, training or supplies. Other ads include real estate and product sales on websites like Craigslist.
Consumers can research companies at the BBB Scam Tracker, an online system that tracks different types of fraud nationwide (bbb.org/scamtracker). BBB Scam Tracker is an online system where consumers can report and find various frauds active across the country.