Scams That Target the Elderly: How To Spot and Prevent Elderly Abuse

by - Last Updated on September 26, 2018

In today’s world, scams are common. And if you’re a carer, or you have elderly relatives, then you should know that the elderly are frequently the target of unscrupulous individuals. Particularly when it comes to technology-based scams, the elderly are especially vulnerable. So we’re taking a look at the kinds of frauds that target older customers, as well as how the elderly can be protected. Knowing what these scams are and how they work should help save yourself, your clients, or your relatives from what can be a hefty financial cost.

Elderly Scams: The Basics

The point of any scam is to get money. In very basic terms, a scammer tries to either get hold of money directly or tries to “phish” for information that can then be used to obtain the cash they want. This could work, for example, by persuading someone to give out enough personal information that a credit card could then be opened in their name. There are tons of different methods that scammers use to get the information that they need, but the basic aim is always the same: to defraud the target of their hard-earned cash.

The good news here is that scams are generally quite easy to spot and usually not very sophisticated. Scammers work a numbers game. They target as many people as possible hoping that just a handful of those people will fall for their scam. Unfortunately, elderly customers are more likely to fall for these scams than others…

Why Target the Elderly?

Why do the elderly make such good targets for fraudsters? There are a few reasons. Firstly, believe it or not, the elderly are more likely to have money. Pension plans, savings, property and financial assets that people have worked their whole lives for, make great targets for scammers.

But there’s also the question of vulnerability. Elderly people may live alone, may be lonely, and may be looking for ways to stretch their retirement money even further. All of these make them easy targets.

And when it comes to the kind of scams that rely on technology, the elderly tend to be less educated when it comes to mobiles, the internet, and gadgets, and this also makes them more vulnerable. Sadly, it’s also true that as we age our wits become less sharp, and the onset of dementia or related mental issues may also play a role in choosing a target for a scam.

Finally, it’s easier to scam someone when you can grab their interest. The elderly tend to share a narrow range of interests that scammers can easily pick up on: things like the need for (cheaper) medication, wanting social interaction, wishing to improve their finances with lower interest rates. This makes it easier for scammers to perk the interest of an elderly victim, since their emails, messages and calls can offer something that the elderly want.

Elderly Fraud by Numbers

According to the UK Office for National Statistics close to 12 million people in the UK are over the age of 65, a number that is rapidly growing. And when it comes to fraud statistics, the numbers are quite frightening.

A study done by Age UK found that around 5 million people over the age of 65 believed they had been targeted by scammers. Around £43 million has been lost to pension plan scams in the last four years, and the average victim loses about £32,000. An elderly person in the UK is five times more likely to be a target of fraud than they are to be burgled. And the impact is more than financial. An elderly scam victim is 2.5 times more likely than a non-victim to die or go into care within 12 months.

Elderly fraud is big business, and the costs can be enormous. This is why it’s essential that you know how to protect either yourself or your elderly relatives.

The Most Common Types of Elderly Fraud

piggy-bank-scams

There are really five kinds of fraud that the elderly are particularly vulnerable to. These are based on the general concerns that elderly people may have, so these types of fraud are usually particularly targeted towards those aged 65+:

Financial Scams

The most basic kind of scam targeted at the elderly simply looks for money. This is the easiest type of fraud to commit since it requires a little setup. The idea is easy: the scammer wants cash. He’ll do whatever necessary to get that cash. You can find more information about the methods used by scammers below.

Insurance or Investment Scams

These tend to be more sophisticated scams. They’re designed to encourage victims to invest in a scheme with a promise of a bigger pay off later (a pay off that never comes), or to pay for an insurance policy that will ensure the victim’s descendants will receive a pay off (again, a pay off that never happens).

Medical Scams

This kind of scam is almost always targeted at the elderly, who tend to have more medical needs than younger consumers. The scam offers drugs that are cheap and may not require a prescription. In general, these drugs either don’t arrive when paid for, or are out of date, not what they claim to be, or have some other problem. Medical scams are more common in the US which has high health care costs than in the UK where the NHS tends to cover medication costs. But they do still happen here.

Lottery Scams

Lottery scams are very popular, though they don’t always involve an actual lottery. Basically, you’re told that you’re being given a prize or some kind of financial windfall (perhaps an inheritance or money sent by a long forgotten friend). The catch is that before you can claim your prize or cash you’ll first need to send a small payment to cover “transaction fees” or “shipping” or something else entirely reasonable. Of course, the scammer pockets the money you sent and you never receive anything.

Identity Fraud

Finally, there’s the kind of scam that isn’t designed to get actual money from you at all. Instead, the scammers are attempting to get personal information from the victim which will then be used to steal the victim’s identity. Once an identity is stolen it can then be used to open a credit card or bank accounts, to apply for loans, and all kinds of other things that will eventually net the fraudster some cash.

The Most Common Methods Used for Elderly Fraud

There are various methods used for elder fraud that are very common. Some of these are more complicated than others. Essentially, a fraudster is likely to employ one of these techniques:

  • Promising money, perhaps a prize, or a gift that will be received once the victim has paid a small amount of money
  • Selling something (which may be an actual product or a service) that either never arrives or is not as advertised, or is something that isn’t needed (such as an extra insurance policy)
  • Befriending the victim (usually in a romantic sense) and then asking for money to help buy a ticket to visit or to help out a family member
  • Attempting to get personal information, usually by impersonating a trusted organization (such as a bank, the electric company, or an insurance company)
  • Tricking the victim into letting the fraudster inside their home where they can then either steal cash or valuables or get hold of the personal information that they need to open accounts or credit cards in the victim’s name

Of course, the method used for the scam depends a lot on how the victim is contacted. So let’s turn there next.

How Do Scammers Make Contact?

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There are four ways that a scammer may make contact, and various methods he will use once contact has been made.

By Phone

Phone scams are still incredibly common, though internet scams are beginning to be more popular. But this is a method that the elderly are especially likely to fall for. The most common phone scams are:

  • Calling and pretending to be someone in authority (such as a bank clerk or someone from the electric company) in an attempt to get personal information that can then be used against the victim (such as account numbers).
  • Calling and saying that money must be sent to a certain account. The scammer then tells you to call your bank to ascertain that this is a real call and hangs up. Unknown to the victim the scammer does not hang up, and when the customer places a call to the bank he or she will actually be speaking to the scammer again. This is a very easy scam to fall for since it sounds very official.
  • Calling from a premium rate number and then hanging up. The victim then calls back to find out who the missed call is from, and ends up being charged premium rates (50p+ per minute) for their call, which the scammer pockets.
  • Calling and pretending to be from a computer company (usually Microsoft) and saying that the victim has a virus which can be fixed. The scammer then goes on to either sell unnecessary software or to remote access the victim’s computer to gain personal information.

In Person

Scams performed in person are less popular than they used to be since the anonymity of phone or online scams is safer. But they do still happen. Any doorstep scan could potentially be used to gain access to your home, though some are simply to get money directly. The most common personal scams are:

  • Someone knocks on your door with a hard luck story (a broken down car, a pregnant girlfriend that needs water, etc.). Whilst you’re away getting your phone or some water or whatever else, the visitor helps himself to valuables.
  • Someone in uniform knocks on your door and wants to read a meter or check your TV connection or something else official sounding. They may show fake credentials. Again, they access your home and pocket valuables whilst you’re distracted.
  • Someone knocks on your door claiming to be a workman that has noticed something wrong with your property. He offers to help you out and fix it. He may just pocket a deposit or may perform a shoddy job and claim whole payment.

By Mail

Again, these scams are becoming less popular with the rise of the internet, though many of them are still performed by email rather than real mail. However, many elderly people are still targeted through the mail since fewer of them have access to email. The most common kinds of postal scam are:

  • Lottery or prize giving letters (which require a fee to be paid before a prize can be collected)
  • Letters claiming a false debt (which you have not incurred)
  • Letters giving a hard luck story (perhaps someone with a terminal illness asking for donations)
  • Letters from solicitors claiming you have an uncollected inheritance (which will require you paying solicitor fees before collecting)
  • Letters asking for an advanced fee (the famous “Nigerian Prince” scam where someone wants to send you millions to keep safe in a UK bank account is a form of this) for some small act
  • Pyramid scheme letters (where you pay a fee and when you recruit others to join the scheme you’ll “make money”)
  • Letters from psychics who claim they know something about your future and want payment to give you this information

Online

The internet has opened up a whole new world of scams, and there are many fraudsters online. The most common online scams are:

  • Money transfer scams (sometimes known as “money agent” scams). You’ll be asked to provide your bank information so transfers can be made through a UK bank account and will receive a percentage of the transfer for your trouble. In reality this is used by fraudsters to launder money and could get you into trouble.
  • Medication scams, where you buy pills online that turn out to be fake or aren’t delivered at all.
  • Fake websites. Usually, this begins as an email that asks you to re-enter your information for a certain website (Facebook, your banking app, whatever). The email then directs you to a fake version of that website and collects the information you enter.
  • Relationship scams, where someone pretends to be interested in you and then manipulates you into sending them money.
  • Emails from stranded travellers that ask for donations to help get them home. Recently, scammers have become more intelligent about this and the emails may state that your grandchild or other relative is stranded or in prison abroad and the sender of the email is trying to help them.
  • Emails containing computer viruses which then enter your computer and collect your information.

How to Spot a Scam

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Most scams have things in common that can help you or a relative spot them. Here are some things that you should definitely be wary of:

  • Being contacted out of the blue (with no warning, or by someone you don’t know)
  • Anything that asks for money or for personal information
  • Anything that seems too good to be true
  • Being forced into making a decision right away (with no time to think about it)
  • Anyone that won’t give you contact details, or that gives you contact details that seem fake or untrustworthy (like PO boxes)
  • Emails or letters with spelling mistakes or grammatical mistakes (many scams come from outside of the country)
  • Anyone that asks for complete secrecy or tells you not to tell anyone else

How to Avoid Scams

Fortunately, most scammers aren’t very sophisticated. The idea is to appeal to the lowest common denominator and hope that someone falls for the scam. That means that avoiding scams is pretty easy if you follow some simple rules:

Don’t give out information or send money unless you’re 100% sure of what you’re doing.

This may mean contacting your bank or contacting the company that’s asking you for money or contacting relatives or friends. Do whatever you can to ensure that a call, letter or email is genuine before giving out cash or info.

Don’t click on links in emails

Any reputable company will offer you other ways of getting what you need. For example, if you get an email asking you to change your Google password a real email will give you a link for convenience, but will also tell you how to change the password manually. Only click an email link if you’re 100% sure it’s genuine.

Don’t let strangers into your home

If someone knocks on your door don’t just ask for ID. Get their ID and then call the company they’re claiming to be from to ensure they’re genuine. If the person is someone with a hard-luck story then close the door on them and make them wait outside whilst getting them water or whatever they claim to need.

These simple rules should be enough to counter most fraud. In the case of the elderly, you may also want to ensure that appropriate legal documents are set up in advance. Signing a power of attorney that allows a younger relative to take control of financial matters should the worst occur (such as dementia) is a good safety net and one that may help in the future.

How to Know if Someone Has Been Scammed

It’s not always easy to know if a scam has happened or is in progress, but there are things that you can do to check out your (or your loved ones) financial state. Check bank records monthly for unexplained withdrawals or transfers. Check credit reports at least annually for unexplained entries. This is free and can be done with any of the major UK credit agencies:

You may also want to call your bank or credit card company and ask them if they offer the ability to add “activity alerts” to your accounts and cards. These will send you a letter, SMS, or email, or call you if unusual activity shows, and may even block cards from working.

Unfortunately, people get very embarrassed about being scammed, which means it’s possible that an elderly relative may try to hide problems. In this case there are some things to watch out for. If someone appears to have financial problems when they really shouldn’t; if someone appears to be living below the standard you would expect; if unpaid bills or demand letters are found in their home; if someone claims money is missing but doesn’t understand how all are signs that a fraud may have occurred.

What to Do If You (or Someone You Know) Have Been Scammed

Fraud targeted at the elderly officially counts as elder abuse in the UK. So if you or someone you know has been scammed there are legal avenues open to you. Firstly, you should contact your local police force. You may also want to contact your local council, as well as the Elder Abuse Hotline on 0808 808 8141. Finally, you may want to contact Action Fraud which is the UK police force’s department for fraud and cybercrime.

If at all possible you will want to avoid any further money or information being taken. Depending on the circumstances you may want to consider:

  • Contacting banks and credit card companies to close accounts or change PIN numbers
  • Changing passwords for internet-based accounts (consider using a password manager for enhanced security)
  • Changing locks and alarm codes in the home

If you are worried about taking a personal role in helping someone you suspect might have been defrauded (perhaps an elderly neighbour or a client if you are a caregiver) then your local authorities may be able to help. Enter the postcode of the victim into this online directory and get contact information for local authorities who may be able to set up an Adult Safeguarding team.

Can You Get Your Money Back?

If you or someone you love has been scammed there is a possibility that you can get your money back. This is not a guarantee, however. Your local police should be able to give you advice on this when you file your report. You will also want to contact the relevant bank or credit card companies to ask about their processes. In general, if a charge was unauthorised the financial institution will usually refund the money. But all of this depends on how the fraud occurred and the processes of the institution in question.

If you think that a financial institution has unfairly or illegally refused to refund money, you can always contact the Financial Ombudsman to make a complaint against them.

Unfortunately, scams do happen, and the elderly are especially vulnerable targets. But with a little knowledge, you can avoid being scammed, and can protect those you love from being taken advantage of.