Common Scams Targeting Seniors Online: How to Protect Our Loved Ones

Scammer in Guy Fawkes mask
Scammer in Guy Fawkes mask, image courtesy of Luther M. E. Bottrill and Unsplash

By David Lukić

This article was updated on September 9, 2023

Scams against older adults are on the rise, and also becoming more creative. With millions still falling victim each year, there’s no sign of the trend stopping and many cases will go unreported for various reasons.

Identity theft, in particular, is a modern form of burglary that can have a massive payoff. The fraudsters will often use a combination of trust and fear to make the target part with their money. Even more distressing is the fact that over 90% of fraudsters are the target’s own family members and caregivers.

Related: A Guide to Consumer Complaints

Top 5 Scams Targeting Seniors

Scammers often initiate contact in typical ways. These include phone calls, emails and physical letters. The scammer may impersonate personnel such as IRS employees, bank workers, and even the victim’s grandchildren. Below are some of the most frequently seen senior scams.

  1. Health insurance fraud

This is a form of identity theft, formally referred to as medical identity theft. The fraud hinges on obtaining personal identifying information (PII). Perpetrators will get this sensitive information in some common ways. This includes posing as medical professionals, health insurance personnel, or by using social engineering tactics.

The ultimate aim is often to receive reimbursement for the offered medical services by filing fraudulent claims. Sometimes the aim is to provide an alternate individual with medical services while the target foots the bill.

The consequences are often confusing and hard to track. Insurance payments may rapidly change, there can be a denial of life-saving coverage or incorrect and sometimes life-threatening changes to medical records.

From Pixabay

2. Sweepstakes/lottery scam

This scam starts with the perpetrator telling the target they’ve won a large sum of money. The ‘prize’ is usually from the lottery or sweepstakes that the target often patrons. Then they’re told that to access the funds they need to pay a fee.

Sometimes the senior may receive a check that they deposit into their account. The perpetrators rely on the few days it’ll take for the check to be deemed worthless.

Sometimes the con will use other similar incentives. These include easy loans, shopping sprees, debt relief and even employment opportunities.

3. Investment scams

This ploy is lucrative because most seniors have some means of a retirement fund. The scammers will propose a handsome investment opportunity to the target. The senior may then give up sensitive information allowing the con artist to withdraw and keep the money for themselves.

The investment ‘opportunities’ may differ, from the likes of pyramid schemes, and fake inheritance ploys. The red flag, however, is that it requires the target to divulge personal details.

4. Online scams

Unfortunately, the majority of seniors struggle with using the internet. This can make them vulnerable to low-level internet scams. The lack of anti-virus software/firewalls also makes the scam tactics more viable.

Pop-ups are commonly used to scare the victim into action. Most will ‘alert’ the user to viruses on the PC. The user then downloads the software suggested by the pop-up.

This, ironically, is usually a virus itself. The malware can then browse the victim’s PC until sensitive, valuable information is found.

Another very popular ploy uses phishing emails to corner its targets. The mail can look like it’s from the same bank the victim uses. The user then clicks the link attached and enters their login credentials. The hacker now has the victim’s bank login details.

5. Romance scams

These senior scams capitalize on the human desire for companionship. Many older individuals use some form of online dating. This is how the perpetrator finds the target.

The perpetrator will build a connection with the target then start asking for money and gifts. They may insist the money is for emergencies and essentials that they can’t afford.

The target may never meet the perpetrator but the ‘relationship’ and exploitation may last years.

From Pixabay

Why are the elderly popular targets?

Scammers tend to target older adults as they often have more money saved than younger adults. Seniors lose an average of $34,200 when they are scammed. The elderly may also be more inclined to interact and are less skeptical than their younger counterparts.

For certain schemes, the fact that they live alone or are seeking companionship may make them easier targets. Although a significant portion of scams goes unreported, this statistic is even higher with the older demographic.

This is due to a lack of knowledge of how to report these crimes and the crime becomes even more attractive to perpetrators. This is why seniors are cheated out of almost $3 billion yearly.

How to protect yourself

The very first line of defense is knowledge. If you know about the popular scams that exist then that’s half the battle won. Here are some practical tips to prevent or report any issues.

In the case of medical identity theft:

  • Dispose of old documents with sensitive medical insurance data by shredding them.
  • Never share your PII over the phone or email unless you initiated contact.
  • Always get a new health insurance card if yours goes missing, and review all notices from your provider to monitor unusual activity.
  • If you get a statement for a service/procedure you didn’t receive, contact your insurance provider immediately.
  • In the case of medical identity theft, report it to the Federal Trade Commission.

In the case of dangerous email correspondence:

  • Recognize spam/phishing emails by looking at the sender’s email address. If the address doesn’t look like it is from a reputable source, mark it as spam. Suspicious email addresses will often use numbers and symbols.
  • Hover your mouse over any links in an email to see where it will redirect you. You can then see if the link is phony/legitimate.
  • Unsubscribe from marketing emails. Additionally, you can restrict certain mail coming to your inbox with a mail preference service.

General tips:

  • Set up all income to be received via direct deposit to a bank account. Sometimes theft will occur if physical checks are sent in the mail.
  • No matter how urgent a situation is made out to be, do not act out of haste. It is always best to alert the authorities if it is a legitimate emergency.
  • Use reputable anti-virus and firewall software on all PCs.

Reporting senior scams

It is always worthwhile to report any fraud or scams you’ve been the victim of. File complaints online via the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center. Always provide as much information about the interaction as possible. No detail is too much detail. Alternatively, report any fraud to the FTC online.

Senior scams aren’t showing any signs of slowing down. It’s important to educate ourselves and our loved ones on the matter. The ploys take on many different forms but they are preventable. Being vigilant and keeping your PII safe are the best forms of protection. Lastly, always report fraud as it helps prevent these criminals from striking again.

About the author

David Lukić is an information privacy, security and compliance consultant at The passion to make cyber security accessible and interesting has led David to share all the knowledge he has.