The good news is that you do not have to resign yourself to being just one more hapless victim. You can take action to make sure this never happens to you and, perhaps, help authorities shut down some of these scams so they do not harm other people. Here are some of the things we all need to know.
Common Scams Targeting Senior Citizens
1. Grandparent Scam - One of my closest friends fell victim to this scam. The way it works is that an imposter calls your home, pretending to be a grandchild in trouble. The "teen" is usually crying hysterically, so it is difficult to make out their voice. They start the conversation by saying, "Grandma (or Grandpa)," after which many senior citizens will respond with the name of one of their grandchildren. The scammer takes it from there, pretending to be that person. In some cases, the scammer has already learned the name of your grandchildren and other details about your family from social media, before they ever call you, so they are even more convincing. In the case of my friend, she and her husband, a retired Sheriff's Deputy, wired $5,000 to another country to "rescue" one of their grandchildren. In truth, her grandchild was here in the U.S., at work, not in any kind of trouble, and had never been in the country where they wired the money. If my friend had taken just a few minutes to text their grandchild on his cell phone, or call his parents, they could have saved themselves from becoming victims. However, like thousands of other victims, they were so distressed by the call, they rushed to "help" their grandchild as quickly as they could. If this has happened to you, do not be ashamed. These people are convincing. If even a retired Sheriff's Deputy can become a victim of this type of crime, it is easy to see how anyone can fall for it.
2. The IRS or Missed Jury Duty fines and Similar Scams - I have received these calls myself. The way they work is that a stranger calls and insists you owe money to the IRS, or you missed your assigned jury duty, or you failed to pay a utility bill, and you must pay a fine immediately or risk arrest or other penalties. In real life, these agencies do not call people and threaten them. If one of these agencies actually needs to contact you, they will first send you a letter. On the rare occasions when one of these agencies or services does call, it is usually after they have already corresponded with you by mail or email. Even if you do owe them money, they will never insist that you pay them within a few hours. They will never ask you to immediately wire them money or pay them in gift cards or other unusual ways. As a result, it is important that you never rush to send money to a stranger, no matter what government agency or private company they say they represent. Call the agency or company at the direct number they list on your bill if you have a question and believe you may actually owe them money.
3. Sweepstakes and Lottery Scams - Everyone hopes to win money, but what if someone claims you won a prize in a contest you don't even remember entering? What if they say they will only send you the winnings if you first mail them a fee or payment of some kind? Never give out personal information or credit card numbers over the phone or online to a stranger, even if they tell you they will send you a large prize in return. Never rush to a store to buy gift cards or cashier's checks to pay for a prize. In fact, never purchase gift cards to pay for any gift, prize or fee. It almost always means they do not want to accept normal types of payments, which only happens when they are doing something dishonest.
4. "Free Lunch" Investment Scams - If you live in a retirement community, you almost certainly have been sent countless offers of a free lunch at a local restaurant in return for listening to a sales pitch about annuities or other investment opportunities. Often, this becomes a "hard sell" in which the presenter tells you that this is a "limited time" offer. Never make major financial decisions in a hurry. Always talk to a variety of legitimate investment advisors before investing your retirement savings with someone at one of these lunches, and check their references. While many honest sales people do use these lunches in order to find new clients, it should be a red flag if they are too pushy and eager to force you to sign up and invest immediately with them. Take your time.
5. Romance Scams - One of the most heartbreaking types of scams are those in which a person pretends to care for you but, unfortunately, really just wants to trick you into giving them money. This can happen in a variety of ways ... it could be people you already know, people you meet through a dating site, or someone who has reached out through other means of contact. I have even seen people on sites like Twitter post that they are only there to "meet someone special." The best advice is to never loan money to anyone, including family members, if you cannot afford to lose the money forever. If you cannot give it to them "for fun and for free," it is probably wise not to give it away at all. In particular, do not loan money to people you do not know well, no matter how much they insist they love you, would never do anything to hurt you, etc. Many older people, especially women, have lost thousands of dollars to unscrupulous people who claimed to be in love with them. Often these scammers spend weeks or months gaining your confidence and then ask for a loan because of some "unexpected" problem, such as getting stranded in another country. Do not be fooled. These people are adept at playing the "long con", and they could be corresponding online with a dozen other people, or more, at the same time. You do not want to be one more of their victims.
6. Phony Charities - It is almost always best to limit your donations to organizations which you know. If you are unsure about them, there are online sites such as charitynavigator.org where you can verify which ones are legitimate. In addition, you should know that it is unusual for most major charities to call your home and ask you to donate money to help orphans, police officers, firefighters or the sick, especially if you have never donated to that charity in the past. If you are tempted to help one of these organizations, ask them to mail you an information packet. This will give you time to investigate the organization before making a final decision. Do not let a caller intimidate you into making a hasty decision over the phone. Anytime you feel pressured, hang up.
7. Tech Department and Help Desk calls - No matter how often we have tried to stop it, my husband and I, as well as many of our friends, continue to get calls from strangers who say they are with with the tech department or help desk for Google, IBM, Dell, Apple or similar companies. They always claim they are just calling to "help" us solve a problem we never knew we had. Obviously, these callers must succeed in getting people to pay them for their non-existent "help" or they would not keep doing it. Put a note next to all your phones: "Technology companies and computer companies will NOT call you unless you contacted them with a specific problem first." The best thing you can do is just hang up on these people and block their phone numbers to make it harder for them to keep calling you.
8. Medicare Fraud - This can take many forms, including doctors who overcharge Medicare for treatments you did not receive, as well as people who steal your Medicare number and use it to obtain medical care in your name. Both activities are illegal and, if you suspect someone has committed these crimes, it should be reported to the Social Security Administration and/or the Office of the Inspector General.
9. Identity Theft and Computer Hacking - A particularly frightening crime is that you could become the victim of identity theft or have your computer hacked and never realize it happened until it is too late. These people can cheat you without ever personally contacting you. Fortunately, there are ways to protect yourself from this type of crime, too. The best way is to make your online identity as invisible as possible. You can start by a book such as: "200+ Ways to Protect Your Privacy: Simple Ways to Prevent Hacks and Protect Your Privacy - On and Offline." Follow their suggestions and you will make it much more difficult for someone who is trying to secretly steal your information.
Common Scams Targeting Veterans
In addition to the scams mentioned above, veterans face their own unique types of scams. These include: offers of cash now in exchange for turning over your future benefits to someone else; offers to help you change your investments in order to qualify for higher government benefits; phony charities which promise to help veterans; and ID theft by people who pretend to work for the VA and request your Social Security number or other personal information. If you have a question about calls you have received, contact the Department of Veteran's Affairs directly to make sure anyone who contacts you is offering a legitimate service.
More Ways to Protect Yourself from Scams
Register your phones with the Do Not Call List:
If you receive a questionable phone call on your mobile phone, you can easily block the number so they cannot keep calling you from that number. They may keep trying, using a different phone number each time they call, but eventually they will run out of numbers and the calls will stop. Contact your phone carrier for your land line to find out how to block these calls on your home phone.
Check out charities at:
Investigate financial advisors at:
https://brokercheck.finra.org or (800) 289-9999
Report Scams and Questionable Phone Calls to the Authorities
Whether you have become a victim of a scam or just believe someone was trying to cheat you, report these incidents to your local police or Sheriff's Department, as well as your state Attorney General's office and the Better Business Bureau. In addition, depending on the incident, you may also want to report it to one of the following agencies:
Securities and Exchange Commission: https://www.sec.gov
Mail Fraud: https://postalinspectors.uspis.gov/investigations/MailFraud/MailFraud.aspx
Medicare Fraud: Call (800) MEDICARE or (800) 633-4227
Federal Trade Commission:
Do Not Be Embarrassed if you are the Victim of Fraud
The people who plan and implement these scams are very sophisticated. They believe that if they try over and over again with enough people, they only need to defraud a few of them in order to make it financially worthwhile to them. They practice their approach over and over again. Because of their persistence, there is no shame in falling victim to these thieves. They can be very charming and convincing.
In addition, the people who cheat you out of your money may actually be relatives or trusted friends. Before you hand a friend a credit card or loan them money, ask yourself if you can afford to take a loss. If not, make whatever excuse you need in order to avoid giving them access to your funds. It may strain a relationship, but not as much as it would if they cheated you.
Do not be embarrassed to report what happened to you. The money you lose is rarely recovered, especially if it is a phone scam that originated overseas, but if these people are allowed to keep up their behavior, they may repeatedly cheat you out of money or they may scam other people. Reporting them to authorities is the best way to protect yourself and others.
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