When you've worked hard to build your retirement savings, you want to ensure you're taking every preventative measure to protect it. Unfortunately, more and more fraudsters and scammers are weaseling their way into the lives of seniors and putting those hard-earned savings at risk. In fact, according to the FBI, seniors lose around $3 billion yearly to financial scams.1
Although it is true that fraudsters target people of varying ages, education levels, and net worth, a few factors make senior citizens especially vulnerable to fraud and scams. These factors include:
- Net worth: The average net worth of households with occupants between the ages of 65 and 74 is $1,217,700.2
- Loneliness: Around 25% of adults over the age of 65 are considered to be "socially isolated." 3
- Health concerns: Scammers may use cognitive and physical decline to confuse or persuade their targets.
- Technology: Seniors report losing money on tech-support scams at a rate six times higher than younger adults.4
To help you and your family protect your finances, we're sharing seven of the most common senior scams and ways to identify and hopefully avoid them.
7 Common Scams Targeting Seniors
1. Phishing Scams
Phishing scammers often impersonate legitimate businesses or agencies via phone or email to obtain your personal information, such as a credit card number, Social Security number, login credentials, and bank routing numbers.
Often, scammers will contact you, posing as your credit card company, to inform you that your account has been flagged for fraudulent charges. They will then claim that they need your credit card information and Social Security number and request it over the phone or ask you to click a link to provide it. In reality, scammers use this information to make purchases using your account.
Identifying a phishing scam
If you receive a phone call from someone claiming to represent a company, such as your bank or credit card, asking for personal information, hang up before sharing your data. Look up and call the customer service number on their website or in your statements to ensure you're speaking with a representative from the company. Then, confirm whether the company needs your personal information and can explain why it is required.
If the suspected scammer is contacting you via email, then one of the tell-tale signs of an email phishing scam is the sender's email address. A phishing email often has misspellings or added characters in the sender's name. These additional characters are often not visible when an email arrives but can be seen by clicking the small arrow beside the address. For example, if an actual email from a company is "email@example.com," a phishing email may show something like "firstname.lastname@example.org" when additional information is revealed.
Similarly, misspelled words or general errors may be present throughout the body of the email. Again, before clicking or replying, look up the company’s customer service number and directly call them. They will be able to confirm if the email is legitimate or not.
2. Investment Scams
These scams involve fraudsters sharing “get rich quick” schemes or “no fail” investment opportunities with seniors. They try to convince you to invest in a fake business venture while promising guaranteed high returns and little or no risk.
Identifying investment scams
Investment scams may present fake reviews or testimonials from previous "investors." But the most effective way to identify these scams is to use a, "Is it too good to be true?" gut check. Anyone who tries to guarantee returns or promises no-risk investments should raise red flags and be avoided.
3. Lottery or Sweepstakes Scams
Lottery scams are presented in a few different ways.
The scammer may reach out to a target claiming they won the lottery or a contest (such as a free cruise or cash for life). Then, they will request personal or sensitive information, such as a bank account and routing number, to deposit the winnings. They are collecting the information to access your accounts.
Another variation of this scam is when the scammer requests upfront money to cover the fees and taxes associated with the winnings. In other words, “If you send us $200 to cover processing fees, we'll get your $10,000 winnings over to you right away." Of course, the “winner” never sees a dime.
Although this is already a nefarious way to steal money from a senior, these fraudsters can be remarkably persistent. Even after someone has sent them money to cover the “processing fees,” they continue to harass the victim and demand more money to “expedite” the process. If the target keeps sending money, they continue asking for more.
Identifying lottery or sweepstakes scams
A legitimate organization will never ask for money upfront to receive a prize. If they do, there is a high chance it is a scam. Another sign something is amiss is if you are notified that you won a prize for a contest you never entered.
4. Tech-Support Scams
Tech support scammers try to convince their target that they can fix a non-existent issue with their computer. They may impersonate brands such as Best Buy, Apple, and Microsoft.
These scams could appear as an email or a pop-up box on a website and often have urgent wording or a flashing message claiming that the computer is infected with a virus. Such messages will then tell you to call a number or click a link to rid your computer of the “virus.”
Clicking such a link may give the scammer remote access to your computer, tablet, or smartphone. From there, they can dig around for personal information and passwords. Tech support scammers may also prompt the user to call a “tech support” number. The person on the line will ask the user to either provide credit card information to pay for their services, ask for personal information such as login credentials, or request that you download unknown software so they can provide “support.”
Identifying tech-support scams
Avoiding these scams may be difficult for older adults who may be less tech-savvy than their younger family members. But adding virus protection software to your computer is a simple and effective way to help keep scammers at bay.
When visiting websites, look for the lock icon in the search bar and "https" at the beginning of a web address, as these indicate that the site is secure. If a pop-up appears, do not click any links or call the number on the screen.
5. Government Impersonators
These scammers may identify themselves to seniors as members of the IRS, Social Security Administration, Treasury, FBI, or other central government agencies. They often claim they have an arrest warrant and frequently demand payment to "clear up the issue."
The main tactic for these impersonators is fear and the threat of immediate action. They are very good at using phone numbers that appear to be from legitimate organizations or collecting enough information on their target to seem “legitimate.”
Identifying government impersonators
Although these impersonators can be scary, there are a few key red flags to notice. First, the person will eventually demand payment — and often in the form of gift cards. No government agency will ever require you to pay your supposed "debts" via gift card.
Second, real government agencies follow in-depth and official processes when collecting debts or following up on issues and complaints. If there is an actual issue, say with your taxes, you'll receive letters, emails, or phone calls from agency representatives to inform you, not an unprofessional and intimidating call to pressure you into paying.
6. Family or Grandparent Scams
These scammers try to pull at your heartstrings by impersonating family members such as grandchildren or nieces and nephews.
They'll call and claim to be a relative, who needs immediate financial assistance. They'll often sound rushed and distressed, saying they need money immediately to pay for bail, hospital bills, lawyer retainers, or other fake fees.
Or, the scammer may call claiming to be a police officer or hospital doctor on behalf of the grandchild. Some go as far as to show up at a senior citizen's home posing as these professionals or as a courier to pick up the funds.
Identifying family/grandparent scams
This scam can be particularly difficult to identify, as the scammer often imposes a sense of urgency and appeals to your emotions.
If a phone call like this is received, try contacting other family members for verification—even if the person on the other end of the line begs you not to tell anyone (this is a common tactic to keep others from catching on to the scam). If they claim to be a direct relative but are calling from an unknown number, try contacting that claimed person through any contact information you already have on hand, such as their cell number or email address.
Like in many other types of scams, these fraudsters will often ask for money via gift cards, as these cannot be tracked or traced. If the person on the phone is asking for Visa gift cards, for example, to pay their bail, that should be an immediate red flag.
7. Romance or Sweetheart Scams
Online matchmaking services and dating apps aren't just for those in their 20s and 30s. People of all ages, including seniors, are finding love online.
But where there's potential for meeting a new love interest in retirement, there's also a risk of matching with a scammer.
Many sweetheart scams start out innocently enough. You find a match online, start chatting, and maybe you talk over the phone. This connection can go on for weeks, even months, before the scammer makes their move. But eventually, after they've spent time gaining your trust, they'll ask for money. Or, in some cases, they may not even ask but tactfully guilt you into giving.
A few examples include the following:
- Saying they can't make rent this month.
- Professing their desire to visit you in person but not having enough to pay for travel.
- Complaining about hospital bills for their sick child or relative.
In other cases, the fraudster may claim to live overseas and request financial assistance in obtaining visas or paperwork, plane tickets, etc.
Identifying romance/sweetheart scams
Romance scams can be a challenge to identify, and once you're pulled in, it can be especially difficult to notice the warning signs. But anytime you're unable to physically meet with someone or video chat, keep your wits about you. Scammers often come up with excuses or reasons why they can't show their faces or meet in person. Again, asking for gift cards or money through hard-to-track methods is always a red flag.
How to Report Fraud Against Seniors
If you or someone you know believes you've been the target of a scam, you can contact the National Elder Fraud Hotline, which was created by the Department of Justice. Their number is (833) 372-8311, and their office hours are 10 am to 6 pm E.T. Monday through Friday.
When you reach a staff member at the hotline, they'll connect you with a case manager. This person will work with you to understand the reporting process at the local, state, and federal levels. If needed, your case manager can connect you with other necessary resources or agencies to handle the situation.
If you're concerned your finances are at risk, contact your financial professional and banking institution immediately. They can help you take measures to prevent further fraud, add additional security measures to your accounts, and notify the proper authorities, if appropriate.
1 Justice.gov, “Elder Fraud Report 2021.”
2 FederalReserve.gov, “Changes in U.S. Family Finances from 2016 to 2019: Evidence from the Survey of Consumer Finances.” September 2020
3 CDC.gov, “Loneliness and Social Isolation Linked to Serious Health Conditions.” December 2022
4 FTC.gov, “Older adults hardest hit by tech support scams.” March 7, 2019