Criminals Are Getting Creative to Scam Seniors

by | Aug 26, 2021 | Blog, Financial Planning, Risk Management

Everyone with a phone or an email address has been contacted by a scammer with some exciting news. Whether it’s a text from Amazon about a laptop you’ve just won or an email from a friend who needs $500 to get home from a foreign country, scammers are always trying to connect with you. And as we get older, we often become more susceptible and bigger targets, too.

Seniors are valued targets for a number of reasons. First and foremost is their nest egg. Many have saved substantial sums for retirement, and criminals have lots of tools at their disposal, both legal and illegal, to research and evaluate their targets. Another factor is free time; when you’re no longer in the workforce or serving as a primary caregiver, you’re much less stressed for time, and more likely to answer unexpected calls or emails. And in the case of a malicious email, if you’re an unsophisticated user, like many of us are, you likely don’t know the danger of clicking on a scammer’s link, or that you can hover your mouse over an email address or URL to identify spoofs (fake emails, websites, or phone numbers). It’s worth noting that when you leave the workplace, you no longer receive online safety emails from IT and Operations, which help keep you plugged into what’s happening in cybersecurity.

At Wright Associates, we get “exclusive offers” all the time, but every unexpected email and phone call is viewed with extreme skepticism, if not immediately dismissed. And if something does sound interesting, the company is researched and vetted before any communication is opened. But in some cases, scams are carried out by legitimate companies whose practices fall into an ethical and legal gray area.

Political fundraising fraud

The NY Times published an article recently about a scam run by WinRed, a political fundraising group, where donors were tricked into making repeat donations. Throughout the 2020 campaign, donors failed to notice a box on the payment authorization indicating they wanted to repeat the donation monthly, and in some cases weekly, which the fundraisers had conveniently checked for them. This led to repeat donations being made without the user’s consent, and the theft of millions of dollars. Other political malfeasance, conducted by operatives from both parties, included bogus offers to match donations, hidden or missing unsubscribe buttons, and solicitations designed to look like past due notices.

The New York Times and Political Data, Inc. looked into the refunds issued in California to get an idea of how widespread political fundraising fraud was in 2020, and found that 65,000 donors were refunded over $25 million in that state alone. They also found that over 56% of WinRed donors were retired. Nationally, the FBI Internet Crime Complaint Center reported over $1B in losses for those 60 and older in 2020. And that is likely far less than the amount scammers actually stole as many crimes go unreported or unnoticed. One investigator shared the story of an 88 year-old woman who was reluctant to report that she’d been scammed by WinRed because she was afraid that her children would think she had dementia as her donations had blown past her credit card limit. According to a 2019 SIFMA report, U.S. seniors lose an estimated $2.9 billion every year in cases of financial exploitation, but only 1 in 44 cases are reported to authorities.

A variety of effective scams

Seniors are targeted in many other ways as well. From fake lottery scams, where they’re told they have to pay the taxes first to receive their grand prize, to fraudulent charities, where a fake fundraising website is built with a name aligned with a real disaster. And perhaps most disturbing is that 90% of the fraud perpetrated against seniors is by family members and caregivers, who can withhold needed services or leverage cognitive impairment to gain control over a senior’s assets or credit accounts.

Knowledge is power

So, what can family members, friends, and caregivers do to help prevent elder abuse? Talk with your parents and other seniors in your life about fraud, and go over some of the strategies thieves are using. The National Council On Aging has created a great list you can use as a starting point. It’s not a fun topic, but it’s one that they will likely appreciate as knowledge gives them the ability to spot red flags and protect themselves. And if you’ve participated in any cybersecurity training at work, share what you’ve learned. To that end, here are the four most common cybercriminal tactics I’ve learned about from trainings I’ve attended:

Phishing – Do not answer calls from unknown phone numbers or read emails from unknown senders. They are usually robocalls and spam emails.

Social Engineering – Getting you to click links and open attachments is how cybercriminals install malware, steal passwords, track keystrokes, and even operate your camera.  Avoid clicking links and opening attachments from anyone you don’t know. As mentioned above, if you hover your mouse over a link, file, or email address you can easily see if the url matches up with the person they’re claiming to be, or the company they’re claiming to represent (a long string of random characters is a big red flag)

Spoofing – Impersonating a company, phone number, email address, personal contact, or co-worker to social engineer you. Criminals can research public information and put together a believable story about who they are to get you to do what they want.

Urgency – If you are ever contacted by anyone who tells you that you need to send money right away, call a trusted contact and verify the story. The urgent need to send money is a huge red flag.

And as we mentioned in an earlier post, moving your accounts to a secure password manager like LastPass adds a valuable layer of security to all of your accounts. Another way to help protect aging family members is to simply ask them if they’ve received any phone calls, emails, or in person visits that they found suspicious, and then help them block those calls and emails, and report the incident to the proper authorities. Any activity along these lines will help, as will letting them know that if they do get caught up in something, that you will be happy to help them sort it out.

To report a cybercrime or any type of fraudulent online behavior, contact the Internet Crime Complaint Center here. To report a phone scam contact the FTC here or call 1-877-382-4357.

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