Online Exclusive

Seniors, scams and identity theft

It started with a phone call on Dec. 21, 2018. An 84-year-old Florida woman (we’ll call her June) received a call from a man who said he was attorney Thomas Wilson. He informed June that her grandson had caused an automobile accident, and the driver of the other car apparently was a pregnant woman who miscarried as a result of the accident. He said she was suing June’s grandson.

However, Wilson said that if June sent $7,500 right away the case could be settled. Then, another man came on the phone. He said he was her grandson, but explained that his voice might not sound the same as usual because he’d broken his nose. He confirmed what she’d been told by Wilson.

June withdrew the money from her bank account and sent the cash by Federal Express, as Wilson requested. A few days later, on Christmas, Wilson called again to request an additional $12,500. June started to feel uneasy so she hung up the phone and called her grandson directly. He told her that he hadn’t been in this supposed accident, and the whole thing was a scam.

June lost $7,500, but a few years earlier 81-year-old Albert Poland Jr. lost much more. Poland was a victim of the Jamaica lottery scam. Poland received a phone call informing him that he’d won $2 million in the Jamaican lottery, which he hadn’t even entered. The caller explained to Poland that he’d have to wire $1,500 to the lottery to cover income taxes owed on the winnings before he could receive his winnings, which he promptly did.

Poland, who suffered from dementia, never received his winnings, but he did receive repeated phone calls, sometimes as many as 50 a day, hounding him for more payments before he could receive his $2 million prize — he sent thousands of dollars more.

Poland’s son found out about the payments and repeatedly told his father he was being scammed, but Poland didn’t believe him. Then one Sunday morning, after even more calls from the Jamaican scammers and a heated phone conversation with his son, Poland committed suicide while his wife was attending church services. He left a note telling his family that he’d be vindicated when the lottery prize arrived the next day. It never came. (See ‘Don’t hang up the phone, Mr. Albert’ Man driven to suicide by phone scammers, CNN, Oct. 8, 2015.)

These are just two examples of the many scams that target older people. The U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging estimates the average annual cost to identity theft victims in the U.S. at $2.9 billion. (See Scams cheat older Americans out of almost $3 billion a year. Here’s what to watch for, by Maggie Fitzgerald, CNBC, Feb. 13.) And because older victims are less likely to report being victims of scams, this figure is probably lower than the true amount.  Seniors only make up 12% of the U.S. population, but they constitute 30% of the victims of scams.

So, why are seniors so likely to be scam victims?

Scammers prey on the vulnerable

When asked why he robbed banks, the famous bank robber, Willie Sutton, responded, “because that is where the money is.” And so it is with many seniors who’ve accumulated a lifetime of savings. But many also perceive seniors as more trusting and, therefore, more susceptible to scams. In fact, research done at Cornell University concluded that as we age, the part of the brain that alerts us when facing risky situations naturally deteriorates. Earlier research at the University of Iowa also found changes in a part of the aging brain that controls belief and doubt thereby making older people less skeptical and more likely to be scammed.

Here are some scams that affect seniors in great numbers:

  1. Scams related to government programs such as U.S. Social Security and Medicare. Clever scam artists, under various guises, often lure seniors to provide their Social Security numbers, which the fraudsters can use for identity theft, including stealing the victims’ Social Security payments.
  2. Telemarketing scams and robocall scams.
  3. U.S. Internal Revenue Service (IRS) impostor scams. Crooks trick seniors into paying money for non-existent taxes.
  4. Phony lottery scams. As in the opening case, fraudsters tell victims they’ve won lotteries they’ve never entered, but before they receive their winnings they must pay taxes or administrative fees.
  5. Tech support scams. Swindlers lure scam victims into paying for unnecessary repairs to their computers.
  6. The grandparent scam. Con artists pose as grandchildren who implore seniors to send them money immediately to help in phony emergencies.
  7. Romance scams. Fraudsters convince lonely seniors that their new online lovers need money to cover the costs of some emergency. Romance scams, like all of the scams above, affect everyone, but they disproportionately affect seniors. Victims in their late 60s lose money at double the rate of younger victims.
  8. Investment scams.
  9. Elder financial abuse. Seniors trust their caretakers, relatives and others to assist them, but they ultimately steal from them.

Preventing elder abuse

Educating seniors is a key component to preventing these scams. Let seniors know that neither the U.S. Social Security Administration (SSA) nor Medicare will ever contact them by phone, text message or email. Even if their caller ID indicates the call is from the SSA, scammers use a technique called “spoofing” to make the caller ID indicate whatever the scammer wants.

You can never be too sure who’s really calling you in a phone call. Robocalls for business purposes — like commercial robocalls in which someone attempts to sell you something — are illegal (unless they’ve obtained your permission to call you) and therefore can’t be trusted.

Warn seniors that the IRS will never initiate contact with them by phone, text message or email and that anyone who contacts them through these means demanding a payment is a scammer.

They also should know that while lottery winners do owe income taxes, no legitimate lottery collects tax payments from lottery winners and, most importantly, it’s impossible to win a lottery you’ve never entered.

Microsoft, Apple and other tech companies don’t contact people by phone or pop-ups on their computers to tell them they have problems on their computers that they must pay to have fixed.

Grandparents must learn to be aware of the grandparent scam and not immediately send emergency funds without confirming the legitimacy of the calls.

Lonely seniors must be aware of the insidious romance scam and be skeptical of anyone who quickly falls in love with them online and soon thereafter asks for money.

We all need to learn that we should never invest in anything that we don’t understand.  Research in detail both the investment and the person offering the investment.

Affirmative steps can be taken to avoid scams and identity theft threats, including:

  1. Sign up for the National Do Not Call Registry.
  2. Install anti-robocall programs on phones.
  3. Freeze credit reports at each of the three major credit reporting agencies — Equifax, Experian and TransUnion — plus the NCTUE, the credit reporting agency used by mobile phone companies.
  4. Remove seniors from marketing lists for preapproved credit cards.
  5. Sign up for a personal online account with the SSA’s My Social Security Account, which enables seniors to manage their benefits online and also prevents identity thieves from impersonating seniors
  6. Consider using companies, like True Link and Eversafe, which can enable trusted family members to monitor and put limitations on seniors’ financial activities, if necessary.
  7. Educate seniors and their grandchildren to be aware of the information they post on social media that scammers can leverage to attempt to perpetrate the grandparent scam. Grandparents and their grandchildren can avoid becoming victims of the grandparent scam by creating a code word only they share.

The battle to protect seniors from scams and identity theft schemes is never-ending, but through education and by taking simple preventative steps, it’s a battle that can be won.

Steve Weisman is a lawyer with Margolis and Bloom in Boston, Massachusetts. He's a professor at Bentley University teaching white-collar crime, and he writes the blog, which provides newly updated information on the latest scams, identity theft schemes and cybersecurity developments. Contact him at