Despite increased public awareness, there is no shortage of opportunities for thieves and con artists to prey on the elderly, to the tune of $3 billion in reported crime a year. The actual figure is most likely many times higher, as many crimes are not reported out of embarrassment.
A recent AARP newsletter described some of the most prevalent scams reported in recent years:
1) Sweepstakes: The con artist buys a list of names of people who have filled out sweepstakes entries, then sets up a call center to call the entrants to tell them they’ve won the sweepstakes. All the entrant needs to do is send in a few thousand dollars to pay taxes and insurance. One ring, busted in 2012, collected nearly $1 million from 78 victims, most in their 70’s.
2) Charity: Older people are among the most generous charitable donors, and con artists take advantage, soliciting donations for veterans, sick children or disaster victims. AARP recommends that credit card information never be given over the phone or to front-door solicitors, and stick with reputable, well-known charities.
3) Grandchildren: Who can say no to a grandchild? Scammers can get all kinds of family information from social media, college directories, websites, even obituary listings, then call, often late at night, claiming to be a grandchild who’s been arrested or hospitalized – often while traveling – and needs money immediately. AARP recommends a call back to the grandchild, or better yet, the parents, before heading to Western Union.
4) Home Repair: This scam can get anyone, but the elderly are particularly vulnerable. A contractor comes to the front door claiming to have noticed necessary repairs while driving by. They get paid upfront in full or part, then run off with the money. Alternatively, they may do a poor job, like spreading motor oil on the driveway to make it look like it’s been retarred. Others will start out doing legitimate work, like trimming trees or cleaning gutters, but continue to recommend more and more costly – and unnecessary – repairs.
5) Health Care: By offering free or discount medical supplies or posing the threat of lost Medicare coverage, the con artist gets enough of your medical information to assume your identity and get health care services under your name. The elderly are prime targets because of their Medicare benefits.
6) Romance: Finding prey couldn’t be easier for this con. Online dating websites not only provide an endless list of lonely divorcees, widows and widowers, but invite the thief to contact the victim. After a few weeks of cyber sweet talk, the requests for money start – to buy a plane ticket to come for a visit or to deal with some personal emergency.
7) Investment: It’s the Big Daddy of ripoffs because the crook goes after the whole enchilada, often stealing the victim’s entire nest egg in one fell swoop. The come-on can be a free-lunch seminar or any foot-in-the-door to hawk bogus investments, or real ones that are wholly unsuitable for older investors.
“The scammer’s goal is to get you to not think rationally, to operate on an emotional level,” says Jean Mathisen, director of AARP’s Fraud Fighter hotline (800-646-2283). Furthermore, con artists understand that as we age, our ability to process information slows, and they exploit that fact by urging the victim to act immediately.