Households headed by Americans 75 and older have the highest median net worth, and households headed by Americans 80 and older have twice as much net worth as those headed by Americans 50 and older. Plain and simple, older Americans’ wealth is the primary reason they are targeted by scammers.
While scams have been around for centuries, the coronavirus pandemic has opened the door for a whole host of new and creatively sinister fraud-based activities that threaten the financial well-being of unsuspecting older adults.
“Take the deep uncertainty created by this pandemic, add the social isolation brought on by the shelter-in-place, then mix in the fact that many older adults must now rely on others to have their most basic needs met — like having groceries and medications — and you have the perfect storm for scams,” said Shawna Reeves, Institute on Aging’s Director of Elder Abuse Prevention.
Current scams targeting seniors revolve around federal stimulus checks, fake vaccines and tests for COVID-19, charity donations, health care worker impersonators demanding money for taking care of sick relatives, and phishing scams to gain personal information. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) publishes a Scam Alert that details a number of these scams as they surface and evolve.
Why are older adults such targets for scams? In addition to the reasons stated above, older adults are more likely to own a home, have good credit, and be home during much of the day, which means they have more time to answer potentially fraudulent phone calls. Additionally, they are likely experiencing an overlay of fear related to the pandemic. Fear can be our worst enemy when attempting to make sound financial decisions.
The first step in avoiding being the victim of a scam is to be aware of certain warning signs and red flags, such as:
- Beware of anyone calling telling you a family member is in trouble and urgently needs money for bail or hospital bills. Get a call back number from the caller and use that to verify the authenticity of the call. Or ask them to use a family password.
- Never give out personal information over the phone to someone who initiates a call with you. Only engage with companies with which you have an existing relationship and with whom you contacted first.
- Do not engage with vendors and businesses unless you have verified their authenticity.
- If someone offers to sell you a vaccine or other treatment for coronavirus, it’s a scam. No vaccine or treatment for coronavirus currently exists.
- If something sounds too good to be true, it is. If you are being pressured or told that you must “act now,” stop communicating with that person or business. If you are being instructed to make a payment via money wire or gift cards, it is a scam. Whenever you are about to send money or sign a contract, consult with a trusted friend or family member before doing so. The more impartial eyes on a transaction, the better.
If you, a friend or a loved one has become a victim of a scam, there are resources to turn to. No one should ever feel ashamed about becoming a scam victim; the focus should be on getting the right kind of help. Here are a few resources to either report fraudulent activity or stay connected as a preventative measure:
SF Adult Protective Services: (415) 355-6700
San Francisco Office of the District Attorney Victim Services Division: (415) 553-9044
San Francisco Office of Financial Empowerment—Consumer Fraud: (415) 551-9595
Little Brothers — Friends of the Elderly: (415) 771-7957
Institute on Aging Friendship Line: (800) 971-0016