Key Takeaways

  • Older adults are often the target for financial scams. This may be due to scammers’ beliefs about their wealth, their generous nature, and their social isolation.

  • According to the FTC, fraud losses reported by people age 60-69 topped those of all age groups, totaling $836 million in 2022.

  • There are many types of payment scams used today. Knowing what red flags to look out for can help you keep yourself or an older adult safe.

Getting scammed wasn't on Phyllis Weisberg’s radar. She was a trusting soul who believed most people are good and honest. But after accepting “help” from thieves posing as tech support reps, the unsuspecting 90-year-old was defrauded of $20,000.

Phyllis is not alone in her plight—far from it. New data from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) shows consumers reported losing nearly $8.8 billion to fraud in 2022. This was an increase of more than 30% from 2021.1

People age 60 and over are especially vulnerable to scams, and the reasons vary. Although many older adults are barely making ends meet, scammers may believe they have ample retirement savings sitting in their bank account. Some older adults can be more trusting by nature, and some also have cognitive issues that can make them prone to exploitation. Additionally, many live alone, with no one to help manage their money.

In the FTC data, fraud losses reported by people age between 60-69 were among the highest of all age groups, totaling $836 million in 2022.2 The FBI’s Elder Fraud Report 2022 revealed $3.1 billion in total losses reported by people over 60, averaging $35,101 per victim.3

According to Soo-Lynn Getz, Director of Fraud Prevention at Zelle, it's important for older adults to stay diligent in understanding what scams are out there because the scammers who are targeting the older adult population are constantly evolving their social engineering and their phishing techniques to be very convincing.

"When older adults are intentionally seeking and sharing knowledge on how current scams are perpetrated, along with what red flags to look for, this builds the ability to reflect on the situation while it is occurring, as well as to pause and reflect." Getz said. "The power of that pause could support an older adult in stopping the emotional response to act without thinking.”

What are the top payment scams targeting older adults?

Financial scams come in many forms, but there are certain types of criminals who favor zeroing in on older adults. Learning how you can spot the red flags early and avoid becoming a victim. Below are some of the most common, according to the FTC.

Imposter scams

What is an imposter scam? It refers to any type of scam where a fraudster attempts to trick you into providing your personal information or sending money. In 2022, imposter scams were associated with the second highest reported loss amount: $2.6 billion.1

Imposter scams lean on two main methods of luring victims:

  • Authority: With this technique, scammers take advantage of the fact that people are not likely to question authority figures, and/or they fear the “scary” consequences threatened by the scammer. For example, scammers may pretend to be:
    • Your electric or gas company claiming they’ll cut off your services unless you pay what you owe them.
    • The IRS or Social Security Administration telling you that you owe taxes and/or fees and threatening criminal charges.
    • Your bank telling you there’s a problem with your account and requesting money transfers or account details.
    • A “tech support” company explaining there’s something wrong with your computer and offering to help—for a fee.
  • Familiarity: This type of imposter scam is particularly devious. Bad actors pretend to be a loved one and try to persuade you to give them sensitive personal information or send them money through a digital payment platform, by wire, or via check. The scammer may, for instance:
    • Claim to be (or be with) your grandchild or other close family member, saying they’re in serious trouble and need emergency financial help (e.g., bail money or money for medical bills).
    • Pretend to be romantically interested in you, and suddenly start asking you for money or bank account details after gaining your trust and affection. This is also known as a sweetheart scam.

Important: Recently, NCOA was alerted to a scam involving unsolicited calls and text messages from someone claiming to be “Helen Hudgens” from BenefitsCheckUp. This person may be calling from the number 631-440-1398. They might ask you to send them gift cards in exchange for enrollment in benefits programs that help pay for groceries, utilities, and other expenses.

If you’re contacted by “Helen Hudgens” or another person attempting this #Scam, hang up the phone immediately. Do not reply to any text messages or click on any links.

Instead, email scams@ncoa.org to tell us what happened. You can also report the incident to the FTC by visiting ReportFraud.ftc.gov.

Online marketplace scams

Online marketplaces like Amazon, eBay, Facebook Marketplace, and Craigslist are used by millions of consumers every day to buy, sell, and exchange everything from clothing to cookware. But their popularity also makes them a hotspot for scammers. Both buyers and sellers can fall victim to scams in an online marketplace:

  • As a buyer, you may pay for something you either never receive—or what you did receive is not what you expected based on the product description. Or the seller may deny you a refund because you used an unauthorized payment type.
  • As a seller, you may be contacted and asked to pay a bogus “business account upgrade” fee. Or you have a buyer who pays you more than the expected price. That buyer asks for a refund of the difference, then cancels the original payment, leaving you out of money.

Online marketplace scams have some telltale red flags. The offer may seem too good to be true—such as a high-demand item being sold for significantly less than its market value. The seller may push a false sense of urgency with the intention of getting you to act on impulse (instead of reason). Or they may provide suspiciously vague information about their product, shipping time, and return policies.

Another warning sign is product listings that demand specific payment methods, such as gift cards or money sent through a specific digital payment app or platform. These payment methods aren't approved by online marketplaces and often can't be refunded.

“Scammers tend to be creatures of habit," Getz said. "Some red flags older adults should always be looking for include a false sense of urgency to cause immediate action, being asked for their one-time passcode, being told to click on links to enter credentials and/or change their passwords, and being forced to use specific nonpayment protection payment methods."

Fake checks

A fake check scam can happen when a scammer gives someone a fraudulent check to deposit and then asks them to send back money for a variety of reasons. Here are some examples:

  • You respond to an online job ad for a remote job and are told you’re hired. The “employer” sends you a check and tells you to send a portion of the money back through a payment app or to purchase gift cards and send your "boss" the PIN numbers. The scammer redeems the gift cards instantly, leaving you with nothing. And if a payment is transferred through a payment app it often cannot be refunded.
  • A company contacts you saying you’ve won a prize or sweepstakes. They send you a check, and then request a digital payment to cover taxes, shipping and handling, or processing fees. Legitimate sweepstakes do not work this way.
  • A person buys an item from you online, and then “accidentally” sends you a check for more than what they owe you. They ask you to refund the balance with a digital payment platform (one that does not allow payment cancellation).

You may be wondering, how do scammers get away with writing fraudulent checks? These scams work so well because, thanks to modern printing technology, fake checks can be indistinguishable from the real thing—even to bank employees. They’re often printed with the names and addresses of reputable financial institutions. Fake checks can also be real checks written on bank accounts that belong to someone whose identity the scammer has stolen. It can take weeks for a bank to figure out that a check is fraudulent, which leaves plenty of time for a thief to collect their ill-gotten gains and disappear.

Awareness can help you stop scams in their tracks

The first step to protecting yourself and those you love from payment scams is simply knowing these dishonest practices exist.

"Awareness really is the best defense against fraud," says Genevieve Waterman, Director of Economic & Financial Security at NCOA.

Scammers don’t rest; they’re constantly working on new and creative ways to bilk people out of their hard-earned money," Waterman continued.

"That’s why it’s so important to keep yourself up to date on the latest scams targeting older adults,” she said. Awareness of how scams work can help you recognize them in the moment, remember to always pause and think it through.

What to do if you think you’re the victim of a scam

If you believe you’ve been scammed, try not to feel ashamed. Scams are purposefully designed to catch a person off guard, and they can happen to any of us. Instead, call a trusted family member or friend and explain what occurred. Contact your financial institution as soon as possible if money has been taken from your account.

You can also report scams online to the FTC. While you may not be able to recover your loss, sharing your experience could help prevent the same scammers from victimizing other older adults. 

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

Sources

1. New FTC Data Show Consumers Reported Losing Nearly $8.8 Billion to Scams in 2022. Federal Trade Commission. Found on the internet at https://www.ftc.gov/news-events/news/press-releases/2023/02/new-ftc-data-show-consumers-reported-losing-nearly-88-billion-scams-2022?utm_source=govdelivery

2. Reported Frauds and Losses by Age (2022). Federal Trade Commission. Found on the internet at https://public.tableau.com/app/profile/federal.trade.commission/viz/FraudReports/AgeFraud

3. Federal Bureau of Investigation. Elder Fraud Report 2022. Found on the internet at https://www.ic3.gov/Media/PDF/AnnualReport/2022_IC3ElderFraudReport.pdf