Senior citizens beware! Top 3 online scams targeting the elderly in 2021

·5 min read

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In 2020, millions of seniors lost billions of dollars to online fraud. (Photo: Getty)
In 2020, millions of seniors lost billions of dollars to online fraud. (Photo: Getty)

If you're a senior citizen, or have a parent or grandparent you're worried about, listen up.

American seniors are being targeted by online con artists in record numbers, according to the FBI. In 2020, people ages 50 and older lost a dizzying $1.8 billion to online fraud. And those numbers are probably underreported, as the FBI believes many seniors are ashamed to reveal they’ve been scammed.

Appalling as it may seem, senior citizens are prime fraud targets, because older people “tend to be trusting and polite,” explains the FBI. “They also usually have financial savings, own a home, and have good credit.” Criminals will exploit these enviable traits with schemes, for example, that promise a windfall or threaten financial loss, to name a few.

Here are three of the most common and costly elder fraud scams of the past year — all of which leveraged COVID-19 to exploit their targets even further.

Senior citizen online scam #1: stimulus check scams

Cyber criminals have capitalized on the hardships of the last year to perpetuate one of their top scams: stimulus check scams. “What we're seeing is the same song, just different lyrics, updated to whatever the area of concern is at the moment,” says cybersecurity expert Adam Levin, founder of Cyberscout, to Yahoo Life.

He explains that senior citizens are more vulnerable when it comes to anything COVID-related or stimulus check-related. That's why stimulus check scams, which have cost Americans at least $3 million and led to a scourge of identity theft stemming from phishing emails, have primarily impacted the elderly. The Better Business Bureau (BBB) reports that these malicious emails prompt users to click a link to, "request benefit payments,” then trick them into spilling personal financial information on a bogus payment application or downloading malware onto their computer.

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Senior citizen online scam #2: Sweepstakes scams 

You've got to be in it to win it — so if you never entered a contest, you definitely didn't hit the jackpot. (Photo: Getty)
You've got to be in it to win it — so if you never entered a contest, you definitely didn't hit the jackpot. (Photo: Getty)

Unfortunately, scams related to sweepstakes and lottery winnings are nothing new, especially for seniors. People ages 65 and over have accounted for more than half of the victims of sweepstakes fraud since 2018, according to the BBB. This age group has lost about $2.52 million to these scams.

Typically, scammers will trick victims into wiring money or buying gift cards to claim their prizes (the BBB warns that no legitimate lottery organization will ask winners to do such a thing). But this past year, criminals revised their strategy by telling targets that not only had they won a sweepstakes prize (they hadn’t), but they’d have to pay extra fees in order to claim their prize. Otherwise, pandemic-related restrictions would delay delivery of their jackpot.

The BBB offers these top tips for sidestepping a sweepstakes scam:

  1. Never engage with someone who’s telling you that you won money in a contest you never entered

  2. Never pay “fees” or “taxes” in advance of claiming a monetary prize

  3. Contact the lottery or sweepstakes company yourself to see if you really won a prize. As Levin says, “to avoid remorse, go to the source."

Senior citizen online scam #3: Romance scams

romance scams malwarebytes
Member of the lonely hearts club? Be wary of a virtual stranger trying to trade love for cash. (Photo: Getty)

Using another evergreen tactic, some criminals tugged at heartstrings to scam more vulnerable elderly Americans than ever this past year, says the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). “In 2020, reported losses to romance scams reached a record $304 million, up about 50% from 2019,” the FTC’s site reports. That means each lonely heart lost an average of $2,500 — but people age 70 and older reported the highest average loss: $9,475 per person scammed.

The romance scam works like this: you ‘meet’ a love interest on a dating app and communicate online without ever meeting your paramour in person. Your scamming sweetheart gains your trust, then convinces you to wire money or send “much-needed” funds via gift card “because they can get cash quickly and remain anonymous” that way, says the FTC.

Scammers upped their unscrupulous game in 2020 by exploiting increased vulnerability and the idea that meeting in person was off-limits for those in lockdown during the pandemic. No longer did scammers have to use stall tactics to avoid dates; they had a built-in excuse.

Only when it’s too late does a victim of a romance scam realize they’ve in fact been fooled. By that point, the perpetrator is often untraceable.

  1. The FTC warns that if you suspect the person you met online might be romance scamming you:

  2. Cut off communication immediately

  3. Do a reverse image search of the person’s profile picture

  4. Do a search for the type of job that person has and see if anyone has reported a familiar-sounding scam from that kind of worker.

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