Modern-day technology has its perks. It makes finding information, performing tasks, and communicating easier. It allows us to see the smiling faces of our friends and family from hundreds of miles away. But digital tools have also given dishonest scammers many more ways to exploit unsuspecting consumers.

Older adults and scams

Scams of all kinds are increasing, and older adults are a frequent target for scheming crooks. In 2021, more than 92,000 victims over the age of 60 reported losses of $1.7 billion to the Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3). This represents a 74% spike in losses compared to 2020.1

While the numbers are startling, the personal stories are heartbreaking.  Headlines are packed with tales of older adults being swindled of their life savings. One article reported that an 81-year-old woman was conned into wiring more than $600,000 to overseas scammers. In another news piece, a 76-year-old veteran was defrauded of more than $3.6 million after being persuaded by scammers to send multiple international wires.

How can older adults fight back? According to financial wellness expert Amanda Clayman, the best defense against scams is simply being aware.

If you know their tricks, you can stop a scammer in their tracks,” Clayman said.

Learn about three common types of trickery scammers use—and what you can do to protect yourself.

What are some ways scammers try to exploit seniors?

1. Targeting those who are socially isolated

Con artists often target older adults who live alone. Finding out their status can be as easy as scrolling through the obituaries or reviewing social media profiles. These scammers know adults who are socially isolated are less likely to consult a family member who may suspect something is not right. 

Being socially isolated can also lead to a state of loneliness. A University of Michigan Study found that feeling lonely or suffering a loss made older adults more vulnerable to financial fraud.2 When you’re sad and struggling, it may be tempting to talk to a friendly-sounding person on the phone. You may also be more drawn to the promise of money or free prizes they offer you. 

Stop and stay financially safe: If an encounter with a stranger via phone, email, or text is making you feel anxious or uncertain, do not take any further action. Instead, reach out to a person you know and trust, whether it’s a family member, friend, neighbor, or someone at your local senior center. Tell them what happened and ask for their advice. Talking things over can help you and the other person identify red flags—before any damage is done.

2. Posing as an authority figure

Many of us were taught as children to respect authority. Scammers know this and use it to their advantage. That’s why many scams targeting seniors involve someone posing as an authority figure to bully the person into doing what they want. Some examples are below:

  • You receive a call from someone claiming to be from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). They aggressively insist you owe hefty fines and threaten criminal charges if you do not comply.
  • A text message that seems to be from your electric company states your bill is overdue. The sender warns you your service will be terminated if you do not pay up quickly.
  • You get an email alert telling you there’s a problem with your bank account. It appears to be from your financial institution. The email asks you to verify your account information to fix the “problem.”

Stop and stay financially safe: The first thing you want to do is verify whether the company or agency trying to contact you is legitimate. You can't rely on Caller ID for this, since numbers can be spoofed to mimic familiar organizations.  Contact the sender using phone numbers or email addresses listed on their official organization website. Tell them about the communication you received and ask them to confirm that it's real.

3. Creating a sense of urgency and/or scarcity

One tried-and-true trick scammers use is creating a false sense of urgency around a situation. Their goal is to get you to act on impulse, without really thinking through the details of their request. They may say things such as:

  • A price is good for a limited time only (e.g., 24 hours).
  • A product is in short supply and will soon run out.
  • An offer is open only to a limited number of people.
  • There will be a negative consequence if you don’t act, such as:
    • You could be arrested and/or jailed.
    • Your bank account will be frozen.
    • Your utilities will be cut off.
    • You’ll lose out on a large sum of money.

Stop and stay financially safe: If a deal seems too good to be true—for example, a product is for sale at a dramatically lower price than its retail value—this should instantly raise your suspicions. Even if you feel eager to respond, slow down, take a deep breath, and ask questions first. Getting all the information up front can help you avoid basing decisions on emotion (instead of common sense).

If you do decide to buy a product or service online, it’s a good idea to use a credit card as your payment method. This is because most major credit cards have built-in safeguards that can protect you against fraudulent activity. This is not the case with online payment apps and other direct forms of payment, which are much like sending cash. You may not be able to get your money back if something goes wrong. That’s why it’s essential to only send money to people you know and trust when using digital payment options.

If you’ve been scammed, report it

Did you realize you’ve been scammed? The first place you call should be your financial institution, says Genevieve Waterman, Director of Economic & Financial Security at NCOA.

You can also report what happened to agencies like the Better Business Bureau®, IC3, and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). “These agencies are increasingly committed to holding dangerous criminals accountable,” she says. “Sharing what happened to you can help prevent it from happening to another older adult.”

This content on payment scams was developed in partnership with Zelle®. Zelle® and the Zelle® related marks are property of Early Warning Services, LLC.


1. Federal Bureau of Investigation. Elder Fraud Report 2021. Found on the internet at,over%20losses%20reported%20in%202020.

2. Sur, Aparajita et al. Contextual and Social Predictors of Scam Susceptibility and Fraud Victimization. Michigan Retirement and Disability Research Center. Found on the internet at