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Fraud and scams – Avoid These Traps

Older adults are prime targets for fraud and scams for a variety of reasons.  For example, they may be lonely and more willing to speak with strangers, have assets available after years of saving for retirement, and/or may have been taught since childhood to follow rules and perceived authority.

The U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging maintains a Fraud Hotline (1-855-303-9470) for the reporting of attempts or occurrences of exploitation, fraud and scams. In 2019, the state of Maine had the highest number of calls to this hotline, followed by our own Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

Based on data from calls received by this hotline during 2019, here is a summary of the Top 10 fraud and scams which target vulnerable people nationally.  Some significant changes have occurred to this list compared to last year.  For the full report visit and click Resources and Fraud Book.

  1. Social Security:  This scam jumped to the first spot from number 8.  An individual is contacted by someone claiming to be from the Social Security Administration.  The caller requests personal information in order to help complete a disability application, obtain a new Medicare card, or purchase medical equipment. The caller may also say that an individual’s Social Security number is associated with a crime and the situation can be resolved by sending payment.
  • Robocalls and Unsolicited Calls:  Robocalls remained at number 2. They can be used to share a pre-recorded message or as a contact to a live person.  Advances in technology allow scammers to appear to be calling from a legitimate telephone number, such as a local number or a nonprofit organization, which people will feel more comfortable answering.
  • Sweepstakes/Jamaican Lottery Scam:  These scams may be received by phone or mail.  Individuals are “notified” that they have won, and must pay a fee for taxes/processing in order to collect their prize, or are offered an opportunity to increase their winnings. This scam also stayed in the same position as last year.
  • Romance Scams:  This scam moved up from number 7.  A cyber-relationship may develop through a chat room, dating site, social media, or email.  The scammer eventually asks for money in order to travel to see the victim, to obtain a visa or other official documents (if the scammer claims to be from another country) or to obtain help for an emergency.  The scammer may claim the identity of an American soldier serving overseas in order to gain trust.  In other cases, the scammer asks for a check to be cashed or a package to be forwarded; thereby involving the unsuspecting individual in money laundering or the shipping of stolen merchandise.
  • Computer Tech Support:  These scams have a higher success rate per attempt than other scams.  Scammers may call and pretend to be from a well- recognized technology company (such as Microsoft or Apple) and offer fake security plans or claim that the individual’s computer has been infected with a virus.  Sometimes a pop-up may appear on the computer screen which falsely reports a problem and provides the scammer’s phone number to call to “fix” it. 
  • Grandparent Scam:  This scam involves a caller who pretends to be a grandchild of the individual. The “grandchild” needs money to help him/her with an unexpected expense such as a hospital bill, car repair, or unplanned trip.  The pretend grandchild may ask the grandparent not to call the parents.  Another variation may be the caller pretending to be a police officer, lawyer, or physician who is helping a grandchild.
  • IRS Impersonation:  This scam previously held the top spot for the last 4 years.  Callers accuse an individual of owing back taxes or penalties and demand immediate payment by certified check, credit card, electronic wire transfer, prepaid debit card, or gift card.  Threats of foreclosure, arrest, or deportation are utilized to create a feeling of urgency.
  • Identity Theft:  The use of someone else’s personal information to empty bank accounts, place charges on credit cards, fraudulently bill Medicare or Medicaid, take out  loans, or commit Social Security or tax fraud.  If you suspect your identity  has been stolen, you should call the company involved, place a fraud alert with one of the credit reporting agencies (Equifax, Experian, or TransUnion) and request a credit report, notify the Federal Trade Commission, and file a report with the local police department.
  • Debt Scams:  This scam is on the list for the first time.  The scammer will contact a potential victim and state that money is owed on a credit card and must be paid immediately.  Another approach involves the scammer offering to help provide debt consolidation services and asking for personal information to get the process started.
  1. Elder Financial Abuse:  Most of the victims of this type of abuse are in their eighties, live alone, and require assistance with some of their activities of daily living.  They can be taken advantage of by family members, home care workers, those who have financial responsibility for the individual’s affairs such as financial advisors or guardians, or strangers.  Due to feelings of fear of reprisal, guilt, or shame by the older adult, authorities suspect that many cases of financial abuse go unreported

One scam which fell off the list this year is a report of an impending lawsuit. The victim is “notified” that he/she failed to report for jury duty or owes back taxes and must pay a fine.  If the fine is not paid, an arrest warrant will be issued or a lawsuit filed.  Scammers have the ability to make it appear that the call is coming from the local courthouse, sheriff, or police department.  Callers may also use the U.S. government’s current anti-immigrant climate to prey upon those who fear deportation by telling them that there is a problem with their immigration paperwork.

Educating older adults about how scammers operate can help individuals recognize suspicious situations and protect themselves from fraud and scams.

Karen Kaslow, RN, BSN