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Senior’s Guide to Avoiding Online Money Scams

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Cyber-attacks are on the rise as hackers and criminals learn about and adapt to methods put in place by government agencies to prevent scams. The FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) reported monetary losses totaling more than $1.4 billion in 2017. [1]

While anyone, regardless of age, can be a target of common money scams, many hackers specifically target seniors. Nearly 17% of reported cyber crimes in 2017 came from victims over the age of 60. And with losses of over $342 million, seniors are losing more money to scams than any other age group. [1] Considering the average age of retirement in the U.S. is 60, this trends is a serious threat to the financial security of many Americans as they enter retirement.

With an empty nest and retirement on the horizon, your senior years should be the time to pursue your passions—not get scammed out of your hard-earned savings.

This guide covers the basics of recognizing and preventing common online money scams, plus provides tips to help seniors navigate the online world safely.

Table of Contents:

 

Why Scammers Target Senior

why seniors are a target for online scams

Pew Research shows that seniors are adopting technology, such as the Internet and smartphones, more than ever before. [2] If you’re among the technology adopters, you know how great technology is for connecting with your children and grandchildren who live far away and with friends you haven’t seen in years.

Con artists and scammers exploit seniors online believing that they aren’t Internet-savvy, despite many proving otherwise. Here are a few of the reasons seniors are a frequent target of scams online:

  • You generally have larger savings accounts and valuable assets.
  • You’re perceived as more trusting and polite.
  • You may not recognize and report the scam right away.
  • As you age, cognitive function and physical ability declines.

 

How to Recognize a Money Scam

how to recognize an online money scamAs online scammers get increasingly sophisticated, certain types of fraud can be hard to spot even for the most adept Internet user. To keep from falling victim to scammers’ tactics, make yourself aware of common warning signs and stay vigilant. A gut feeling is always a good place to start. For example, if something feels too good to be true, it probably is. Also, if a request from someone you know feels out of character, trust your instincts and do your research before taking action.

An easy way to know if something is a likely con is to use the three U’s for identifying money scams.

the three u's of identifying money scams

  • Unexpected: If you receive an email from someone you trust making an unexpected or unusual request for money or personal information, contact them personally to confirm.
  • Urgent: If the tone of the message is threatening or asks you to act immediately, take time to think it over or tell a friend before acting. If you’re still unsure, check the IC3’s Alert Archive to see if there have been other incidents of the same scam.
  • Unsecure: Make sure the address bar reads “https://” and not “http://” when entering personal or financial information online. If a URL begins with “https://” that tells you the site is secure and protects information that’s transmitted. If you provide sensitive information to an unsecure site, it can easily be stolen.

 

Top 10 Online Scams That Affect Seniors

online scams that affect seniors

Scammers see senior citizens as easy victims, but you can prove them wrong by educating yourself on some of their common schemes. They often use things like healthcare, retirement savings and online dating to lure unsuspecting seniors into giving over their personal information. Here are 10 of the most common online schemes that target seniors.

1. Medicare Scams

If you’re 65 or older, you might rely on Medicare for your health coverage. Scammers know this and whenever Medicare sends out new cards or makes changes to its policies, they capitalize on opportunities to steal personal information. This can be done over the phone or by email. The scammer claims to be a Medicare representative and insists there’s a fee associated with getting you a new card or that your card has been compromised—neither of which is true.

According to Medicare.gov, “Medicare, or someone representing Medicare, will never contact you for your Medicare Number or other personal information unless you’ve given them permission in advance.”

How to protect yourself: Don’t respond to the email and mark it as junk or spam. If you need to speak with Medicare, call them directly at 1-800-MEDICARE (1-800-633-4227).

2. Health Insurance Scams

In order to make a profit, criminals may try to offer you health insurance plans that have little to no real value. In some cases, they may be selling discount cards or limited-benefit plans, but rarely explain how limited the coverage really is.

How to protect yourself: Never purchase insurance on the spot. Do your research on the company and thoroughly read the details of the coverage offered.

2. Counterfeit Medications

This scam is especially dangerous because it can cost you not only your money but your health. Prescription drugs aren’t cheap, and most seniors are dependent on a medication or two to maintain their health. Scammers exploit this by offering fake prescription medications for purchase online at a low cost. The number of counterfeit medication scams under investigation by the FDA is up four times since the 1990s. [3]

How to protect yourself: Always go through licensed medical professionals to get any prescriptions and pick up your medications at a local pharmacy. If you enjoy the convenience of ordering online, many reputable pharmacies allow you to refill your prescription online or have your medications delivered.

3. Phishing

Scammers often capitalize on your trust in people and institutions by posing as them in emails, on calls or in text messages. For example, the Social Security Scam is a form of phishing where scammers pose as government officials who need your social security information. Once they’ve gained your trust, they use that to gather personal, sensitive information like your Social Security number, bank/credit card information and/or passwords.

How to protect yourself: Always check the sender’s email address or phone number before clicking any links in emails or messages that request personal information.

4. Dating and Romance Scams

Online dating can be great for people of all ages—seniors included. But it’s important to practice the same kind of cautions online as you do in real-world dating. Online dating scams are one of the biggest and most costly scams, and scammers can break your heart and bank account if you’re not careful. It’s a red flag if someone builds a rapport with you only to turn around and ask for money. Even if the request seems heartfelt, like wanting to come see you, it could still be a play solely for money.

How to protect yourself: Take things slow, do your research and never send money to someone you don’t know personally. Even if you’ve met them, run the other way if they ask for money after you’ve known them only for a little while.

5. Investment Scams

In these cons, scammers take advantage of your need to build or maintain retirement savings. A lot of seniors are concerned about making their money last, which makes them vulnerable to ads or requests that promise high-profit, no-risk investments.

How to protect yourself: Stop and think, “Is this too good to be true?” Never accept an offer on the spot. If you’re not sure, talk it over with a trusted friend or check the IC3’s Alert Archive along with other online sources, such as the Scams and Frauds page on USA.gov.

6. Homeowner Scams

Seniors are at a point in life where they’re more likely to own their homes. While some may want to stay right where they are, others have grand dreams of moving to a new location—maybe somewhere warmer. In this scenario scammers work to identify the value of your property and then offer you a reassessment—for a fee, of course.

How to protect yourself: If you want to move, only work with a reputable realtor or go the for sale by owner route.

7. Sweepstakes and Lottery Scams

These scams use a surprise factor to trick you into thinking you need to click something to “claim a prize.” It can come as an email, a web pop up or even within a web page you’re reading.

How to protect yourself: If you receive an email that claims you’re a winner, it’s almost guaranteed to be a scam. On the off chance that you actually signed up for a sweepstakes, check your email inbox to see if you have a confirmation of your signup from the same email address. Better, yet, pick up the phone and call the company before you click on a link in an email or on a website.

8. Fake Charities

Seniors may feel more compelled to donate to those in need or contribute to disaster aid, but unfortunately fake charities often try and get donations after a natural disaster.

How to protect yourself: Do your research. Call a number to speak with someone from that charity or search the charity name and a phrase like “scam” or “fraud” in Google. You can also use the organizations listed by the FTC to research reputable charities.

9. Malware Scams

Using antivirus software is a great way to protect yourself from fraud. Unfortunately, scammers often pose as antivirus providers and instead install malware on your computer. These advertisements are often pop ups or web page ads.

How to protect yourself: Make sure anything you download to your computer is from a reputable source and never give anyone you don’t trust remote access to your computer.

10. Threats and Extortion

These types of scams utilize fear to get the desired outcome. Typically the scammer tells you that something terrible is going to happen if you don’t give them money or personal information.

How to protect yourself: Never act impulsively. Consider whether the scenario seems realistic. If you’re unsure or scared, talk to a friend. If the caller acts like a relative, hang up and call them back to ensure it is, in fact, your relative and not a stranger pretending to be your relative.

How to Protect Yourself Online

how seniors can protect themselves online

It’s good to know the basics about scams and the accompanying warning signs, but there are steps you can take to further protect your computer and online identity from fraud including. settings, tools and government resources.

keep your firewall on

Keep your firewall turned on. A firewall monitors incoming and outgoing network traffic to prevent unauthorized access to and from a private network. It protects your computer from hackers attempting to crash it or gain sensitive information.

keep your operating system up to date

Keep your computer’s operating system up-to-date. Make sure your computer software is up-to-date. You can usually subscribe to automatic updates online. If you keep your system updated, your computer will continue running smoothly and you’re sure to have the latest fixes for any security holes.

two factor authentication

Turn on two-factor authentication. Two-factor authentication requires both a password and an additional piece of information to access your account. The second piece of information is typically a message sent to your phone or a code generated by an app or token.

look out for unsecure money scams

Look out for unsecure networks and websites. If you get a warning message saying “Unsecure Wi-Fi Detected,” don’t visit any banking websites or store any passwords while on that network. Also, most browsers will warn you when you visit an unsecure site. The feature should already be enabled on most computers, but if not, make sure you enable this setting.

install antivirus software

Install or update antivirus software. Antivirus software prevents malicious software programs from installing on your computer. Malware programs allow others to see your computer activity. Be wary of any ads on the Internet for these types of software as they are often not real solutions and instead are fraudulent.

use a password manager

Use a password manager. A password manager, like LastPass or Dashlane, lets you have a unique, strong password for every secure website—in other words, not your grandchild’s birth date. You won’t have to remember them all, because the password manager stores and encrypts your passwords for your protection.

check your credit scores often

Check your credit often. Major changes to your credit can indicate potential fraud. Consider signing up for a free credit score and checking it every few weeks as a way to watch for changes.

Find Information About Active Scams

 

What To Do If You’re the Victim of a Scam

what to do if you're the victim of a scam

The best thing to do if you suspect you’ve been the victim of a scam is to report it. IC3 chief Donna Gregory says, “We want to encourage everyone who suspects they have been victimized by online fraudsters to report it to us.” IC3 receives over 800 complaints a day on average, so don’t let embarrassment keep you from reporting something.1 Reporting a scam helps law enforcement investigate similar scams and take action to bring the scammers to justice.

Steps to Take After Fraud

  1. To report a scam, file a claim online at www.ic3.gov. You’ll be asked to provide complete information about the crime as well as any additional relevant information.
  2. Once you’ve reported the scam to authorities, you also want to take action against any other loss. IC3 recommends that victims take actions, such as contacting banks, credit card companies and/or the credit bureaus to block accounts, freeze accounts, dispute charges or attempt to recover lost funds.
  3. Keep a close watch on your credit reports and consider using credit monitoring tools.

In February 2018, the Justice Department made a coordinated sweep of elder fraud cases that resulted in several initiatives to reduce the number of annual cases. [4] This included building local, state and federal capacity to fight elder abuse, supporting research to improve elder abuse policy and practice, and helping older victims and their families.

Each year the number of Internet crimes increases and scammers become more sophisticated, but spreading knowledge and awareness is one of the best ways to combat the issue. Arming yourself with a basic understanding of the dangers online can help you protect yoursel
f from fraud.

Additional Resources

online scam resources

Sources:

1 Federal Trade Commission Latest Internet Crime Report Released

2 Pew Research Center Tech Adoption Climbs Among Older Adults

3 National Council on Aging Top 10 Financial Scams Targeting Seniors

4 United States Department of Justice Justice Department Coordinates Nationwide Elder Fraud Sweep of More Than 250 Defendants


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