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Scam warning: These clever tactics are fooling older people across the US

It is a sad reality that scams are a part of our everyday life. With so many to watch out for, it can become confusing to track the latest tricks or fraud attempts. Unfortunately, there is one group being targeted more than others: the elderly.

Between scammers showing up at seniors’ doors and a recent scam targeting grandparents’ coronavirus fears, it seems that criminals will stop at nothing to fleece them of their money.

The Better Business Bureau (BBB) compiles an annual list of the top scams targeting the elderly, and the latest report has been released. Shockingly, the number one scam against senior citizens preys on their loneliness. Keep reading for all the ruthless details.

1. Romance scams

We have covered romance scams on numerous occasions, and there is a good reason for that. Also called “sweetheart swindles,” the scams target divorced or widowed people. The BBB warns that these scams can take months to develop.

It usually starts with online conversations that seem genuine, culminating in requests for money. Once the transaction is complete, the scammer will disappear. Some might even stick around to see how much they can steal. Here are some tips from the BBB to spot romance scams:

  • Too hot to be true. Scammers offer up good-looking photos and tales of financial success. Be honest with yourself about who would be genuinely interested. If they seem “too perfect,” your alarm bells should ring.
  • In a hurry to get off the site. Catfishers will try very quickly to get you to move to communicate through email, messenger, or phone.
  • Moving fast. A catfisher will begin speaking of a future together and tell you they love you quickly. They often say they’ve never felt this way before.
  • Talk about trust. Catfishers will start manipulating you with talk about trust and how important it is. This will often be the first step to asking you for money.
  • Don’t want to meet. Be wary of someone who always has an excuse to postpone meetings because they say they are traveling or live overseas or are in the military.
  • Suspect language. If the person you are communicating with claims to be from your hometown but has poor spelling or grammar, uses overly flowery language, or uses phrases that don’t make sense, that’s a red flag.
  • Hard luck stories. Before moving on to asking you for money, the scammer may hint at financial troubles like heat being cut off or a stolen car or a sick relative, or they may share a sad story from their past (death of parents or spouse, etc.).

2. Phone fraud

Fraudulent telemarketers often direct their calls to older adults. Scammers will claim to be with a government agency or pose as a bank employee. They may sound friendly and courteous or aggressive and threatening. They may even have a caller ID to match their claims.

But scammers can easily spoof caller IDs, and government agencies DO NOT make unsolicited calls. It is important to develop a healthy distrust for unsolicited callers and avoid sharing personal information.

Also, never feel pressured to act. When in doubt, hang up the phone and call the official source to verify unexpected or unusual claims. You can lower the number of unsolicited calls you receive by enrolling your phone number with the National Do-Not-Call registry at 1-888-382-1222 or

Here are some phone fraud red flags the BBB says to watch for:

  • “Free,” “low cost,” or “buy one, get one” deals.
  • Request for unusual payment types (i.e., prepaid debit cards or wired funds).
  • Claims that you only pay postage or administrative fees.
  • Pressure to act now and/or aggressive tones.
  • Deals that must be secured with a credit card or bank account information.
  • Sure-fire investment opportunities.
  • Charities that send 100% of your donation directly to the victims.

3. Travel scams

Who doesn’t like to go on vacation? Scammers have been known to target the elderly with unbelievable deals, special offers or steep discounts on popular holiday destinations. But the truth is that those holiday packages don’t exist. Once a scammer secures a deposit or payment for a fake vacation, the money and the scammer will be gone for good.

4. Investment scams

Unscrupulous people target the elderly with investment scams, as they seem to have more disposable income than most. It should be no surprise then to learn that the investments are completely phony.

“Even if you are a savvy investor, you can still fall victim to this scam. Con artists are masters of persuasion, and they often learn the weaknesses of their targets and tailor their pitches accordingly,” the BBB warns in a blog post.

Here are some tips from the BBB on spotting investment scams:

  • Be very wary of buzz words. Certain phrases should raise a red flag for an investment opportunity. Don’t believe anything that is “guaranteed” to do well or offer low or no risk with a high return. Pyramid schemes (even if they are not called that) require you to bring in other investors to recoup your initial investment.
  • The investment industry is highly regulated. Be wary if investments are unregistered with the SEC or other investment industry regulators. Also, check licensing for the sellers. 
  • High-pressure sales tactics are also a big warning sign. Many risky investments are sold at “opportunity meetings” or other high-pressure situations. A similar tactic is the use of a “shill,” a decoy who offers a fictional success story but is really being paid by the plan’s promoter. Some pitches leverage a shared connection such as the same ethnicity, church, profession, etc. Be on the lookout for attempts to prey on an affinity. 
  • How do you make money? If you find that the reward for recruiting new distributors and selling them products and training materials is more than the reward for selling products, you may be dealing with a pyramid scheme. 
  • Chain letters are also illegal. A chain letter may seem like harmless fun. Is sending $5 (or a book or small gift) with the hope of receiving the same from other participants that big a risk? It may not seem like a big deal, but any chain letter that has you sending money or other items of value through the mail with a promise of a return on this “investment” is illegal in the United States and Canada. Also, if you participate in email chain letters, you could be spreading a virus or other malware to all the people you are emailing. 

5. Grandparent/emergency scams

Tapping into the giving and helpful nature of grandparents, scammers use it as an opportunity to steal large amounts of money. A fraudster will call an older person and pretend to be their grandchild.

Once trust has been established, the caller will ask for money. The reasons can range from bond, bail, school fees or a field trip. Sometimes the grandparent is instructed not to wire the money but that someone will come to pick up the cash. 

According to the BBB, here are some dead giveaways of emergency scams:

  • Resist the urge to act immediately, no matter how dramatic the story is. Check out the story with other family and friends, but hang up or close the message and call your loved one directly. Don’t call the phone number provided by the caller or caller ID. Ask questions that would be hard for an impostor to answer correctly. 
  • Know what your family members are sharing online. You may not have control over your family’s social media accounts, but familiarize yourself with what they are sharing online. 
  • Don’t wire money if there is any doubt about the call. If you wire money and later realizes it is a fraud, the police need to be alerted. 

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