Con Watch: How Seniors Can Avoid Being Scammed

People over 60 are often the target of money-grabbing scams. Steve Weisman offers some tips on how to recognize and avoid them.


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Steve Weisman is a lawyer, college professor, author, and one of the country’s leading experts in cybersecurity, identity theft, and scams. See Steve’s other Con Watch articles.

According to the FBI’s Elder Fraud Report for 2022, millions of older Americans are targeted by scammers each year at a cost of $3.1 billion, and this figure is probably low because many older victims don’t report being scammed.

One reason seniors are a frequent target is because they are more trusting and therefore more likely to believe con artists’ lies. A study done by researchers at the University of Iowa found naturally occurring changes in the prefrontal cortex of the brain as we age, making older people less skeptical and therefore more susceptible to scams.

According to the FBI, the most common cons affecting seniors are call center scams, which include crooks posing as tech support, customer service, or government agents.

India is a hotbed of call center scams. For many years, companies such as Microsoft and Dell outsourced their customer service to India, which developed the technology infrastructure to support these services. Although the great majority of call centers in India are legitimate, it is simple for swindlers to operate there unnoticed.

These call center imposter scams have long been among the most lucrative for fraudsters. While there are many variations, the most common involves the tech support scam, in which consumers are tricked into believing there is a problem with their computer that requires expensive services. Tech support scams are increasingly common and victimize consumers 60 years or older about five times more often than people between the ages of 20 and 59, according to the Federal Trade Commission

The most common tech support scams start with popups on your computer that alert to you a security issue; the popup provides a telephone number for you to call.

If you call the phony number, they will often walk you through how to enable remote access to your computer so they can assess the “problem.” Providing remote access to your computer for anyone can lead to myriad headaches, including identity theft and the downloading of ransomware. Neither AOL, Yahoo, Apple, Microsoft, or any of the other tech companies ever ask for remote access to your computer. In order to fix the non-existent problem, the scammer will often demand gift cards as payment.

Another variation is a phone call from someone posing as a representative of a government agency such as the FBI, IRS, or the Social Security Administration. The scammer, under a wide variety of pretenses, demands an immediate payment by gift card, credit card, cryptocurrency, or wired funds. Alternatively, the caller demands the victim supply personal information such as a Social Security number, which will then be used for identity theft purposes.

It is easy to recognize one of these impersonation scams. The FBI, IRS, or SSA will never initiate communication with you by a phone call, and they will never threaten you with arrest for non-payment of a claim. Being asked to pay by gift card or cryptocurrency is a definite indication that the call is a scam since no governmental agency requests or accepts payments by these methods.

 Tips for Avoiding These Scams

  1. Enroll in the Federal Trade Commission’s National Do Not Call Registry, which will protect you from commercial telemarketers. If you or a loved one are enrolled in the Do Not Call Registry and do receive a call from a telemarketer, you can be confident it is someone who is breaking the law and should not be trusted.
  2. Don’t answer any call that comes from a number and person that isn’t recognized. Never give personal information or make a payment in response to any call, especially if the you didn’t initiate it.
  3. Whenever you get a popup message on your computer screen, an email, or a text message that appears to tell you that you have a security problem with your computer, never click on any links contained in the message or call the telephone number provided. If your screen freezes, all you need to do is just turn off your computer and restart it. If you are concerned that you may be experiencing a real security problem, you can contact tech support directly using the phone number or email found on the company’s website.

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