Last Updated: April 4, 2015
Seniors can make easy targets for fraud, whether it's for
unbelievable investment returns or fraudulent sweepstakes prizes.
Fraud on seniors can happen by phone, mail, in person, or, less
commonly, the Internet (because seniors are online in smaller
numbers). It can happen to wealthy seniors, and those of limited
means. According to the Federal Trade Commission, studies show con
artists are more likely to target senior citizens than other age
groups because they believe seniors are more susceptible to such
scams. The FTC reports that fraudulent telemarketers direct from
56-to-80% of their calls at seniors. The need for senior fraud
prevention has become greater than ever.
"Seniors are available because they tend to be retired, they're
home, they answer their phones and read their mail. So, some of the
offers that come in aren't necessarily more attractive to seniors,
but they have the time to read it," Jim Wright, managing director
of programs at the National Crime Prevention Council, explains.
"There's still the prevailing idea that seniors grew up in a
more polite time when they thought it was rude to hang up on
someone," he adds, "and there is the issue of being alone or
lonely, so they're more likely to talk to strangers."
According to the NCPC, seniors age 60 and over are targets of
49% of telemarketing scams involving medical care services and
products, 41% involving sweepstakes and prizes, and 40% involving
magazine sales. The NCPC estimates that each victim of a
sweepstakes scheme lost an average of $7,000.
Fraudulent telemarketers use five basic techniques:
- Scarcity: The senior has been identified as
the grand prizewinner, but if she doesn't accept the prize
immediately (and pay that "handling charge") the runner-up will get
the prize instead.
- Hype: The telemarketer screams and hollers
about how excited he is the senior has won.
- Authority: The telemarketer passes the phone
to his "boss," so his target will know the offer is
- Phantom Fixation: The prize is too good to
pass up, and the targeted senior becomes fixated on it.
- Reciprocity: The telemarketer explains that
she won't receive her commission unless the senior accepts the
prize and pays the handling fee. When the senior protests that he
doesn't have enough money to pay the fee, the scammer asks how much
he can afford, and says she'll accept that smaller amount, just
because she's so happy the senior has won the prize.
Wright says fraudsters will change from one persuasion tactic to
another if necessary. "The theory is the longer we're on the phone,
we're going to do business, legitimate or otherwise," he says.
The NCPC (with Crime Dog McGruff as its spokesdog) has put
together a short guide on senior fraud prevention. The guide
features five ways to make unwanted telemarketers go away. Tape it
by your loved one's phone and he or she will always have a
polite-but firm-comeback for unscrupulous come-ons. (Of course, the
best way to get rid of someone you don't want to talk to is to
simply hang up.)
The scammer will most likely keep trying to convince his
intended victim, so it's best to hang up after delivering the
Practice these comebacks with your loved one. Also, have your
loved one tell telemarketers to take his or her name off their call
list. If the telemarketers don't, they're breaking the law. Sign up
for the National Do Not Call Registry. As a last resort, get your
loved one an unlisted phone number.
Fraudulent telemarketers may also use a senior's forgetfulness
against them. The scammer may tell her target she's with a
well-known charity, and the senior has forgotten to send a check
for a pledge.
"Most telemarketers can tell when they've got an older person by
the voice or inflection of the voice and they will take advantage
of it," Wright says.
As a caregiver,
you also can help monitor your loved ones' mail for potential
fraud. Look for stacks of unsolicited mail with various offers for
money or prizes. Encourage your loved one to throw that kind of
mail straight into the recycle bin. Also, see if your loved one has
received packages of cheap costume jewelry or other "gifts." Offer
to help balance their checkbooks, and look for any unusual large
withdrawals or checks written to companies you've never heard of.
Check credit card statements for any unauthorized charges.
If you suspect mail fraud, contact the Postal Inspection Service
in your city. Go to https://postalinspectors.uspis.gov/investigations/MailFraud/MailFraud.aspx to
Home Repair Fraud
Another prevalent scam against seniors is for home repairs. For
example, someone shows up at the door claiming to have been
re-roofing a neighbor's house. The scammer will say that while he
was up on that nearby roof, he noticed the senior's home has some
shingles loose. He may even climb up a ladder and pull off some
perfectly good shingles as "proof." When the senior hires him to
fix the roof, the scammer demands payment in advance, makes a lot
of noise pretending to fix the roof, leaves for lunch and never
Scammers also may pose as a utility worker, saying they need to
check the phone line inside the house, and then stealing personal
information once inside. Or they may simply politely ask to use the
bathroom, while an accomplice sneaks in and steals something.
Educating seniors about the different types of fraud and how to
fight back can go a long way toward effective senior fraud
prevention. The Illinois Attorney General's Office has an
innovative program called Senior Sleuths. It trains senior citizens
to educate other seniors about senior fraud prevention. AG staffers
teach older citizens how to file complaints with the state's
Consumer Fraud Bureau, and how to monitor telemarketing calls and
door-to-door solicitations. Senior Sleuths also receive a resource
manual with information on various types of scams, how to check a
company's background before sending money, and how to file a
The NCPC's Wright says fraud for all age groups is
underreported, partly because the victim is embarrassed. Many
seniors are afraid of losing their independence, so they won't tell
their loved ones if they were defrauded, because they don't want
them to take their checkbook away.
Oftentimes, fraud happens because of a basic human emotion-
loneliness. "There used to be somebody sitting across the table in
a chair and they're not anymore; there's a void," Wright explains.
"And, in many cases, who's filling that void is a