Tips for Seniors to Avoid Scams

May 11, 2023 | Assets, Videos

by ACTEC Fellows Natalie M. Perry and Tara Anne Pleat​

According to the FBI, in 2021, there were 92,371 elder victims of fraud, resulting in $1.7 billion in losses, a 74% increase compared to 2020. So, what steps can seniors and families take to prevent elder fraud by scammers?

ACTEC Fellows Natalie M. Perry and Tara Anne Pleat explain common scams against senior citizens, offer tips to avoid scams, and outline steps to take if you are the victim of fraud.


Natalie:  I’m Natalie Perry, ACTEC Fellow from Chicago, Illinois, and I’m here today with Tara Anne Pleat, ACTEC Fellow from upstate New York. We’re here to discuss the most common scams targeted at seniors and provide tips on how to protect yourself and avoid scams.

Introduction to Elder Fraud Scams

In a pattern that accelerated during the coronavirus pandemic, romance scams claimed $139 million from adults ages 60 and over in 2020, according to the Federal Trade Commission. That amount was up from $84 million the year before. The romance scam is just one of the types of scams targeted at seniors. In reality, there are quite a few scams targeted at seniors.

Tara, can you tell us about some of the most common scams?

Common Scams Against Senior Citizens

Tara: Sure. I think the most common scam that’s out there relates to a scammer reaching out to a senior, claiming to be from a government agency–typically, from the Internal Revenue Service, the Social Security Administration, or an indication that the person is a Medicare representative. Those scams, typically, are targeting seniors. In the case of the Internal Revenue Service or the Social Security Administration, either that they owe money or they’ve been overpaid, and there is a need for them to immediately repay or else they’re going to have some sort of punitive damage. In the context of Medicare, there is typically a claim that their insurance coverage is going to lapse if there isn’t an immediate payment to the scammer.

And those are agencies and entities that seniors are pretty familiar with. They’ve been dealing with them their whole lives. And, certainly, with respect to Medicare, healthcare, and health insurance, it’s a very targeted way of getting the seniors’ attention. And causing them to feel fear that they’re going to lose their benefits or otherwise may be in some trouble with a government agency that they interact with on an annual basis.

Some other common scams are computer or tech scams, where a scammer will reach out by phone or by email, and indicate that there is a virus that’s been detected on the senior’s computer, in an effort to get access to the senior’s personal information that may be maintained on their PC. Or a demand for payment in order for that antivirus scammer to clean the viruses off that senior’s computer.

Another is the lottery scam, where a telephone call will be made indicating that the caller is from something like Publishers Clearing House, and they’ll advise that the senior has won some amount of money. But, in order to collect, they have to first make payment of administrative fees.  And they’ll request payment through either a wire transfer, Western Union, or in some cases, gift cards.

And then lastly, and I think probably most sadly, there is a very common scam, which is the “Grandma or Grandpa, I’m in trouble” scam. Where the scammer will call the senior and say, “Grandma or Grandpa, do you know who this is?” And, inevitably, the senior will indicate that they believe it’s the grandchild whom the scammer sounds most like. And the scammer then has that grandchild’s name and will indicate that they’re traveling, or that they’ve been arrested, or some other thing has happened, and they’re now in need of help and financial help and request that the grandparents provide funds to assist them.

Natalie: Yeah, these scams really – they tug at your heartstrings, right? They’re really emotional – trying to prey on someone’s emotional empathy or their desire to fix things, which we all have as humans.

Do you have any tips for seniors who are trying to avoid getting scammed? Or at least recognize when they might be at risk?

Tips for Seniors to Avoid Scams

Tara: I think, initially, from the standpoint of how to identify, the first is that often scammers are going to pretend to be from an organization that’s known to the senior, right? And what people should know is that the Internal Revenue Service, Medicare, and the Social Security Administration are never going to call or text you and ask for personal information. It does not happen that way. That is not the way citizens and consumers interact with those agencies. So, that would be No. 1. You’re not going to get an unsolicited phone call from any representative from Medicare, the Internal Revenue Service, or the Social Security Administration.

Scammers will often indicate that there is a problem or there’s a prize. But, in either instance, there is a need to provide some sort of payment in order to get your prize or to help with whatever the problem might be. There’s always pressure to act immediately – “I need you to provide this within the next 6 hours, within the next 24 hours.” “I’m going to be in a serious amount of trouble if I don’t turn over payment, Grandma.” That kind of pressure will often be put on the person who is being scammed.

And scammers will often tell seniors to pay in a very specific way, such as wire transfer, Western Union. In some instances, as I mentioned before, requesting gift cards be mailed to a particular place. In order to avoid being scammed, if a person feels that the call is out of the ordinary, or they’re feeling pressured, or they feel like something isn’t right, really try hard to resist the urge to act immediately.

If someone that you weren’t expecting is calling you and requesting personal and financial information, resist the urge to give it. Don’t act immediately. Don’t give out your personal information. And pay attention to how people are telling you to pay, right? Again, those are sort of the keys.

And then lastly, if you’ve got a trusted family member, or friend, or neighbor – before you take steps, maybe talk it through with them and indicate these were the components of the call you received or the communication you received. And maybe that trusted friend or family member will help you identify that that was, in fact, a call that was a scam and will help you avoid it.

Natalie, if, in fact, a person has fallen victim to one of these scams, or they believe that they have been scammed, what do they do? What steps should they take to try to mitigate damage and prevent it from happening to somebody else?

Steps to Take if You Believe You Were Scammed

Natalie: Yes, I think the first call they should make, if they didn’t already talk to a family member, is probably to call a trusted family member who can help them look at what happened and see whether there’s recourse that can be had. And then, it’s always a good idea to call the local police. A lot of these scams are online, but you never know. It could have been someone local who might realize that you’re a target, and you could be at risk. So, it doesn’t hurt to alert the police.

If you were scammed and you paid money inappropriately, I would definitely call your local bank. That should be at the top of the list of calls that you make. You may be able to get some of the money back, depending on the circumstances. And you should let Adult Protective Services know, if you don’t have a trusted family member or friend, or even if you do, really, let them know of the scam. They keep track of these things for the other seniors in your area.

You can find the information for Adult Protective Services by looking online or visiting the ACTEC website. And, if you’re able to, you should let the FTC know, the Federal Trade Commission, as well. They keep track of all these scams to try to help people. And the AARP and the FTC are often putting out articles for seniors about the most common scams, to try to help protect others from falling victim to these scams.

Tara: Thank you, Natalie. Those are great tips for folks if they feel like they have fallen victim. The sites and the references that we’ve made here will be available on ACTEC’s website. And what we would ask you to do is go to actec.org/estate-planning and look for this video. And you will find links to the different organizations and programs that have been talked about here.


Additional Resources