Avoiding Online Scams That Target Senior Citizens

older man hands typing on a laptop computer

In Indianapolis, IN, a 71-year-old man began what he thought was a meaningful relationship with a German woman who he met online. The two spoke often and over the course of nine months, he sent the woman numerous messages – and about $80,000. The man, who declined to give his name in news reports, had fallen victim to what is known as a “romance scam”. It is one of many scams that target the uninformed, lonely, or generous, who often end up being senior citizens.

Even the smartest people can fall prey to online scams. It is estimated that 1 in 10 senior citizens who live independently will become victims of financial abuse. This means that roughly 2 to 3 million people are being scammed out of about $2.9 billion each year.

Why These Scams Happen

People aged 65 and older tend to be more isolated and less tech-savvy than younger generations. Because they did not grow up with current technology, seniors are less inclined to adapt to technological advances. They have also done better for themselves financially than both the generation before and after them. It is likely that they have created a nest-egg that scammers would love to take advantage of.

The most at-risk, however, are elderly seniors that face cognitive or mental issues preventing them from making informed decisions. Confusion can be a common condition late in life, so staying familiar with online safety is crucial.

Common Scams

1. Email Scams

red and yellow mailbox graphic

One of the oldest online scams is the email scam in which victims are tricked into entering personal information. Victims think they are confirming this information for a business they patronize but are in fact giving to a stranger. Using “phishing”, a technique in which scammers create a website identical to another well-known website (like Netflix), scammers get the victim to enter their username and password so that they can log into their account. The scammer might disguise themselves as a representative from a familiar company and claim the credit card didn’t process. This prompts the victim to re-enter their card number.

2. Computer Software Scams

This scam can be executed in one of two ways. The first method involves a phone call from someone that sounds legitimate and claims to work at a legitimate company, such as Microsoft. After telling the victim that their computer is at risk for a virus or other issue, they ask the victim to follow their instructions and subsequently gain control of the victim’s computer. 

In the second method, a pop-up appears while the user is browsing the internet telling them that there is an issue with their computer. They are told that in order to fix this issue, they need to download software. In both cases, a virus or malware is downloaded to their computer and compromises the security of their information.

With that virus or malware information, scammers can do a lot of damage:

  • Access bank accounts to steal funds
  • Obtain credit card information to sell or to order products and ship them to a different address
  • Access the victim’s contacts to appear credible for future scams
  • And much, much more

3. Online Romance Scams

heart on a computer icon illustration

This unfortunate scam is the one described above affecting the Indianapolis man. This scam may be one of the most disturbing, as it plays on the emotional vulnerability of the victim in addition to their financial or technical vulnerability. Additionally, scammers may have been speaking to the victim for months, manipulating them to divulge personal information about themselves and gain their trust. The scammer then begins to request increments of money to cover basics or help with a family emergency. Anyone can pretend to be someone else online. To protect themselves, people should never send money to anyone they have not met in person.

4. False Friend Scam

There are a few variations of the false friend scam. The first two involve social media and someone that the victim knows outside of the internet. A scammer may either hack into their acquaintance’s legitimate social media account or create an account that is a duplicate of their victim’s legitimate account. In the latter case, the scammer then sends friend requests to the victim’s friends. In both variations of this scam, the scammer can gather personal details in order to steal that person’s identity once the scammer is able to see information only available to the victim’s friends.

The third variation of this scam involves an email sent from someone the victim knows that has had their account hacked by the scammer. After sending the victim an email with an attachment from that hacked account, the downloaded attachment installs a virus that can access information stored on the victim’s computer. If an email is received from a friend’s email address, who claims they didn’t send it, this scam is being attempted.

5. Sweepstakes Scam

Another one of the oldest scams is the Sweepstakes scam, in which the scammer says that the victim has won money or prizes and requests that the victim makes a deposit to hold the money until it can be transferred. Naturally, the idea of sending a small amount of money to get a larger amount later is tempting, but victims never see any prize money.

In a variation of this scam, victims are told that they have won a free vacation and just need to make a deposit on the accommodations. In some cases, this scam has gone so far that the victim flies to their destination only to find that the property is not owned by the scammer.

6. Online Shopping Scams

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These scams are more difficult to detect, as scammers set up a fake eCommerce site to look like a real one. The victim may find the site when searching for a specific product and make a purchase even though they are not familiar with the seller. The scammer will either take payment for the purchase and never deliver, or deliver an empty package to the wrong address in order to prove that someone signed for the delivery. In either case, it is unlikely that the victim will ever see their money again.

7. Charity Scams

Unfortunately, there are people that see generosity as a vulnerability and want to take advantage of those willing to help out others. This scam involves setting up a fake charity website or crowdfunding page on a site like GoFundMe, then requesting that victims send money for an illness, emergency, or other cause. The “charity” then pockets the money of the donors and disappears. If one is considering donating to a charity, it is wise to check the reviews on a site such as charitynavigator.org to ensure the charity is legitimate.

8. Scam Compensation Scam

It may sound ridiculous, but some scammers have set up scams that claim to reimburse people who have been scammed in the past. This is another scam based on the idea that the victim will pay a small amount to hold their compensation. They never see a dime.

9. Phony News Scams

Not all scams are out to take people’s money. Some want to spread incorrect information for political reasons or ad revenue. These sites are set up so well that it is difficult to tell that it is fake. As a result, many people end up posting stories to social media or send articles to friends and family. Before trusting a news source that one has never heard about, Google the name to research its reputation.

now8news screenshot showing fake news story
Now8News looks like a legitimate news source on the surface but is filled with fabricated stories

Ways to Prevent Getting Scammed

Scams are not 100% avoidable, but taking steps to ensure your safety will help your chances of becoming a victim.

  • Choose a complex password that includes numbers, letters, and symbols. Create a different password for each account; do not use the names of pets, family members, or any other identifying information. If you are having trouble remembering all of your passwords, a password manager like PasswordSafe or Strongbox can store them for you.
  • Use credit cards when paying online. Never trust any website that asks you to pay in prepaid cards or wire transfers. Credit cards and their transactions can be canceled, but prepaid cards are as good as cash.
  • Never send money to anyone you have never met in person. Even if you think someone you know is requesting money, confirm that they are who they say they are before sending funds. Apps like Venmo or Google Wallet are secure and track your transactions, though they aren’t protected by the FDIC.
  • Monitor your bank accounts for fraudulent activity. Checking your bank account and credit card transactions online regularly will help you recognize any unauthorized activity.
  • Do not give out your personal information to any sites that aren’t familiar. Never enter your Social Security Number under any circumstance, and make sure that the site you are on is secure. Look for “https” at the beginning of the web address and a lock icon next to the address on the browser. These are indicators that a site is secure.
  • Use Antivirus software. Most Windows computers come with an antivirus software trial, but purchasing this software is worth the money. These programs keep others from accessing your computer and prevent virus downloads.
  • Think about what you post on social media. If you aren’t sure if you should post information, don’t. People that can see your profile can see personal information about you that may help them steal your identity. Spreading false information can be damaging as well, so find a second source to confirm news stories before posting.
  • Search for information online. If you are unsure about a business or anyone else that you are sending money to, look them up on Google to make sure they are reputable. Do not be afraid to call or email a business directly to make sure they are not being imitated by someone else.

What To Do if You Have Been Scammed

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  • Freeze your credit if you think your credit card numbers or personal information have been stolen. You will need to contact each of the three major credit bureaus: Equifax, TransUnion, and Experian.
  • Contact your credit card or financial institution to make sure no fraudulent charges have been made.
  • Change your online password(s) to make sure another person cannot log in.
  • Report the scam to the FBI, the FTC, and Fraud.org to alert others.
  • Go easy on yourself. Anyone can be scammed and you can only do so much to protect yourself. Embarrassment is the #1 reason that scams are not reported, but reporting helps prevent others from having the same experience as you.

And remember: If something seems too good to be true, it probably is!

About the Author

Mandie Allietta, Technical SEO Specialist

Mandie Allietta

Technical SEO Specialist II

Mandie joined Top Of The List in 2018 and has a degree in Web Development. She lives in Grand Rapids, MI with her chihuahua-mix, Potato.