Elder fraud, which is also known as elder financial exploitation or elder financial abuse, is the abuse of financial control or misappropriation of financial resources, resulting in harm to an elderly victim, in a relationship where the perpetrator is in a position of trust.
A recent Comparitech study found that while more than 200,000 elder fraud scams are reported to US authorities each year, resulting in an estimated $1.17 billion in damages, this is likely only part of the story. Based on our study findings, we estimated that the real number of annual elder fraud cases in the US was closer to 5 million, equating to roughly $27.4 billion in damages.
In this post, we explain more about what elder fraud is, why the elderly are targeted in scams, and what you can do to prevent elder fraud.
See also: Cybercrime statistics
What is elder fraud?
Elder fraud is a specific type of fraud that targets seniors. Perpetrators may be someone known to the elderly victim such as a family member or friend, or they could be a complete stranger. In the latter case, the fraudster will often make contact with their victim online or over the phone.
One common way that seniors are targeted over the internet is through email. General phishing techniques are used against a large number of email addresses with content aimed at seniors. This content often falls into the following categories:
- Medical or health (including discount prescriptions and health coverage)
- Financial support (for example, home equity or retirement savings)
- Friendship or camaraderie
Other schemes are more targeted and may involve emails or phone calls that are very personal and specific in nature. Targeted attacks often use information gleaned in general phishing attacks to help dupe the victim into going along with the scam.
Elder fraud can result in devastating losses for victims. A US Consumer Financial Protection Bureau analysis found that victims suffered an average loss of $34,200.
Why are elders targeted?
Seniors are disproportionately targeted as victims for fraud. Our study estimated that just last year, 1 in 10 seniors in the US fell victim to elder fraud. We also found that 38 percent of all fraud cases target the elderly. So why is the rate so high? There are a few main reasons:
- Common problems: It’s easier to phish information from people if you know what their problems are. Seniors tend to share common concerns, such as medication costs, proper health care coverage, financial security as retirement funds run out, and providing for loved ones left behind. From a criminal’s standpoint, it makes sense to craft phishing emails on a small number of topics that a large percentage of recipients will be interested in.
- Isolation: Many cases of elder fraud wouldn’t have occurred at all if the victim had spoken to a friend, family member, or carer about what was happening. The problem is that many seniors are isolated and don’t have anyone to run things by.
- Trusting: Most people over 30 today have memories of a world without the internet, and seniors would have spent most of their lives without using email. That can lead to confusion over how reliable email is, and how much trust to assign it.
- Poor decision-making: It’s not uncommon to experience some level of diminished mental capacity as we age. That can tax our decision-making abilities and lead to poor choices.
Common types of online elder fraud
It’s both surprising and sad that a good chunk of elder fraud is committed by family members or caregivers. A report by the Office of Financial Protection for Older Americans found that in 36 percent of cases, the victim knew the perpetrator, be it a family member, fiduciary, caregiver, friend, or acquaintance.
The same study found that just over half of elder fraud cases are perpetrated by strangers. Many of these schemes are carried out online where email, social media, and other communication methods provide a way in for scammers.
Here are some common types of online elder fraud:
Monetary scams aimed at elders are attractive to criminals for two major (very different) reasons. On the one hand, many seniors are living on fixed and inadequate incomes and could use more money to live on. On the other, many elderly people have sizable cash nest eggs (on average more than six times as much as younger people). Plus, with large amounts of equity in their homes, they have access to lots of money.
Fraudulent investment schemes seek to bilk money out of people with the promise of some greater reward down the road. While it can be grisly to consider at the time, it’s always important to think of how much time is left for an investment to mature. By and large, older people would be looking at short-term investments, so this is where many fraudsters will focus their efforts.
Insurance scams play another angle as there is no promise of the victim pulling money out of the insurance policy. Instead, fraudsters tug at the heartstrings and persuade seniors to invest money that will benefit those left behind.
In some cases, the insurance agent actually is legitimately licensed, but is still trying to commit fraud against the elderly. For example, David Pickett, a US-based insurance agent, has been arrested three times for fraud.
Although they sound far-fetched, grandparent scams are unfortunately surprisingly prevalent. In this scheme, a fraudster calls a senior on the phone and purports to be their grandchild in need of help.
The caller who is posing as the grandchild typically asks for money to be sent quickly to help them out of some emergency. They often tell the senior not to tell anyone about the situation as the grandchild would get in trouble.
While it sounds unlikely that someone would believe a stranger is their relative, there is usually some well thought out excuse as to why they sound different. Plus, the senior may be hard of hearing or simply feel panicked enough that they don’t become suspicious. A criminal convicted of carrying out these scams claimed that around one in 50 people fell for his scheme.
In one recent case, a woman was scammed out of more than $20,000. She thought she was sending bond money to get her grandson out of jail.
In this instance, the caller was someone posing as a law enforcement officer, so it was even easier to persuade the woman to send money. In other cases, the caller may pretend to be some other person in a position of authority. For example, they may purport to be a lawyer acting on behalf of the grandchild or someone from a medical center where the grandchild is supposedly receiving treatment.
Lottery scams are targeted at people of all ages and older people are no exception. The basic framework of a lottery or sweepstakes scam is to tell the victim they’ve won a large prize of some kind, but some smaller amount of money has to be paid in order to claim the prize.
The money to be paid is usually attributed to non-existent things like “international transfer fees” or something equally silly. It is safe to say that if you’ve never entered a lottery, you can’t win it, so claims like this out of the blue are a red flag. Legitimate lotteries are tightly regulated to ensure there is no fraud. It is extremely unlikely that a real lottery organization would contact the winner by email to begin with.
It’s no secret that thirty-somethings don’t tend to need a lot of prescriptions. As we age, that changes, and by the time we reach our elder years, most people routinely take prescriptions of some sort. Depending on the type of drug and the available health care benefits, those bills can add up. This creates a rich environment for scammers to prey on.
The National Association of Boards of Pharmacy (NABP) found that 96 percent of the online pharmacies it reviewed appeared to be operating against the law or against standard practices.
One example is CanadaDrugs.com which was allegedly selling unapproved and counterfeit medication. This domain has since been seized, but the below screenshot was taken before the site was taken down.
Government and industry organizations alike warn against purchasing drugs online for a variety of reasons, most of which boil down to a lack of accountability. There is no reasonable way to ensure that:
- You will receive the drugs
- The contents are as labeled
- The medication is of the correct dosage
- The drugs are not expired
Wondering if a pharmacy email is legitimate? While there are some legal online pharmacies, almost none of them would bother to send unsolicited email. This is partly because they would get lost amongst the onslaught of spam promoting illegal pharmacies. If you’re going to order drugs online, the following guidelines are recommended:
- Only use websites that belong to a verifiable “brick and mortar” pharmacy with a street address.
- Don’t purchase drugs from a pharmacy that will sell you prescription drugs without a prescription.
- Don’t purchase drugs from a pharmacy that will issue you a prescription based solely on a questionnaire on the site.
The NABP is spearheading a movement called Safe Pharmacy to help customers identify legitimate pharmacy sites.
Only legitimate pharmacies should be able to purchase “dot pharmacy” domains, meaning sites with that extension are safe to visit.
Identity theft is a strange-sounding term, but it is accurate. Identities are very valuable because they can be used to apply for credit cards, open bank accounts, and a wide variety of other things. Stealing an identity simply means pretending to be another person to fraudulently obtain money or other items. The FTC reports that 19 percent of all identity theft complaints affect seniors.
We’ve created an infographic which shows many of the reasons seniors are disproportionately targeted for identity theft. Some of those are that seniors typically have:
- Higher savings
- Better credit scores
- More assets
- Higher net worth
Identity thieves are generally criminals of opportunity. Taking some basic steps can greatly increase your protection against becoming a victim. We’ve provided some easy-to-follow steps here.
There are a large number of identity theft prevention services in the US, which you may want to use as an added precaution.
A very large, ongoing scam that targets seniors is the IRS scam. It has been going on for years and specifically tries to identify seniors as victims. The caller pretends to be from the IRS and states that you have a tax debt that must be immediately paid in order to avoid arrest.
Reverse mortgage systems
Reverse mortgage systems are not inherently fraudulent but they are almost never a good idea. A reverse mortgage is a type of loan whereby older homeowners can borrow from their home’s equity. These loans are typically very expensive and it’s possible that the principal plus the interest over time can end up being more than the house is worth.
How to recognize if elder fraud is happening
Sometimes it can be painfully obvious when fraud has occurred. A suddenly empty bank account can make it pretty clear that you’ve been scammed. In other cases, the fraud can be more of a long-term process during which small amounts of money are siphoned off over time. If you’re vigilant, you may be able to spot the signs of elder financial fraud happening to yourself or to a loved one.
How to spot elder fraud happening to someone else
It can be very difficult to detect elder fraud unless you’re in frequent contact with the victim. As a caregiver or family member, you may be able to detect telltale signs that things are not normal. Some signs can be:
- A change in daily habits that could indicate a loss of money. People who know they have been scammed are sometimes embarrassed to admit it, but changes in their behavior may help you spot financial struggles. For example, changes in spending habits or out-of-character comments about not being able to afford certain things could be signs.
- Suspect documents. If you have authorized access to their mail and banking documents, you may find unpaid bills, returned checks, or unusual payees on statements.
- Outright complaints from the victim that they are missing money. Someone who is confused or may be operating at a diminished mental capacity may not know they’ve been scammed and just can’t figure out where their money is going. Or it’s possible that the victim does know they’re being defrauded somehow, but just can’t figure out how it’s being done.
- Flush family members or friends. Caregivers or other people close to the victim who seem to have items or a lifestyle above what you would expect to be affordable can be a red flag. They may just be good savers, or they may be supplementing their income in other ways.
How to spot elder fraud happening to you
While we’d all like to think we’re savvy enough not to fall victim to any type of fraud, criminals can be surprisingly clever and persuasive. In many cases, the fraud is happening in plain sight and someone is asking you to hand over money. However, in other cases, it could be happening without your knowledge. Here are some tell-tale signs that someone is trying to use you for their financial gain without contacting your directly.
- You have unexplained charges on your credit card. It’s prudent to review your credit card and bank statements at least monthly. If you see any unexplained charges, you should report them to your bank. Even very small charges should be explained. When credit card numbers are stolen, it’s common for the thieves to put through a small initial charge to ensure the card is still valid. This can increase the value of the credit card details on the black market.
- You get an alert from your bank. Many credit card companies and banks have default fraud alert systems, and some will allow you to set up your own activity alerts. This will let you keep track of banking activity in real time rather than waiting for monthly statements. You’ll likely be able to set up online access to your accounts as well to monitor account activity.
- You credit report looks odd. Credit monitoring companies are required to provide free credit reports at least annually. Ensure you take advantage of that and review your reports looking for accounts that you didn’t open. And look for a change in your score that indicates someone may have been racking up bad debt in your name. In Canada, you can review your credit report monthly for free at Credit Karma.
How to prevent elder fraud
The Canadian Network for the Prevention of Elder Abuse has some guidelines to help prevent elder abuse in general, including fraud. One of the less obvious things you can do to prevent fraud is to be socially active.
If you maintain a group of friends or stay close to your family, you’ll have a peer group to bounce ideas off. If something seems suspicious, you’ll have someone to talk to. Also, you’ll have people in your life who know your day-to-day lifestyle and may be able to recognize if something is wrong.
Other steps you can take to prevent fraud include:
Never give out any information or money based on an email
Email is an insecure means of communication and is used in a wide variety of scams. It’s easy to craft an email to make it look like it came from a trusted entity, when in fact it did not. There should be no reason to send anyone money based solely on an email request, even to people who appear to be friends or family.
The same goes for personal information. If someone asks for your full name, phone number, address, date of birth, social security number, or banking information over email, this should raise flags.
Before considering responding, do some research into the company or person making the request. Always follow up email requests with a phone call or some secondary method of communication to ensure it’s a legitimate request. That being said, avoid calling numbers that are included in a suspicious email. Instead, use a search engine to look up the real number for the company or person involved.
If emails become more frequent or have a sense of urgency, these should not be seen as signs that you should comply. Rather, they are big red flags indicating that this is a scam.
Never give out information or money based on a phone call unless you know and trust the person
This sounds similar to the previous point, but it is slightly different. Criminals use email because it’s possible to hit an extremely large number of potential victims with almost no effort. But, that doesn’t mean all criminals are lazy.
Some will take the time to identify victims and make telephone calls instead of sending emails. The scammer is not able to hit as many victims over the phone as he could over email, but the personal touch of a phone call makes the success rate higher.
If you do agree to send money to someone you know over the phone, ensure that they are who they purport to be. There can be warning signs that something is amiss, such as:
- The information or amount of money being requested seems out of line with the reason for it.
- The story behind the purpose of the information or money seems outlandish.
- The caller indicates that there a sense of urgency.
- The caller tells you that you shouldn’t inform anyone else about the request.
One way to spot a fraudulent caller is to ask lots of questions. In some cases, they will simply hang up. Others are well-prepared and will try to use their answers to convince you further, but multiple probing questions will often reveal holes in the story.
Designate a trusted person for your financial advisor to talk to
Financial advisors are in a good position to spot fraud attempts. If your money is invested and managed by an advisor, then fraudsters have to attempt to deceive the advisor, which is (hopefully) hard to do.
In the event that your advisor does spot fraud but is unable to work with you directly due to illness or advanced age, the advisor should be able to work with someone else on your behalf. Your advisor generally won’t have the legal authority to disclose your financial information to anyone else unless you’ve specifically designated someone in advance. If your advisor doesn’t ask you to fill out an authorization form for this purpose, ask how you can do that.
Set up powers of attorney and other legal documents in advance
The key phrase here is in advance. We don’t always see problems coming and if you suddenly become too infirm to deal with financial matters, it may not be possible to set up powers of attorney at that time. Much like designating a trusted person for your financial advisor to talk to, you should designate a trusted person to have your powers of attorney before you need them.
Use a VPN
Short for Virtual Private Network, a VPN encrypts all of a device’s internet traffic and routes it through an intermediary server in a location of your choosing. This prevents hackers and other bad actors from monitoring online activity and tracing it back to the user. This is especially useful for people who connect to public or shared wifi, such as elderly people who reside in assisted living facilities.
VPNs might seem a bit too technical for some elderly people, but they can usually be configured to connect whenever internet is available, allowing you to set it and forget it.
How to report elder fraud
Elder fraud is a form of abuse and is therefore against the law in most countries. Your local police force should be a good first point of contact in all cases. Depending on your country, there may be other organizations that can help as well.
In Australia, each state or territory handles incidents in their area. The Australian government has a list of agencies that can take reports of elder abuse, as well as help in other ways.
The federal Royal Canadian Mounted Police investigate elder abuse. You can contact them directly or get in touch with your local police force.
Each US state operates an Adult Protective Services agency. Each agency appears to be run autonomously, but you should be able to locate the proper one by searching for your state name and the phrase “Adult Protective Services.”
In addition, the AARP (formerly the American Association of Retired People) is a helpful resource. It maintains a list of agencies in various industries that can help.
The UK government website directs fraud cases to your local police force, and provides a number for the Action on Elder Abuse hotline.
You can also contact Action Fraud, the UK’s national fraud and cyber crime reporting center, for guidance.
Fraud of all kinds can usually be detected by simply being vigilant and involved in your day-to-day finances. However, elder fraud can be more difficult to spot because of the potential for confusion and isolation in our elder population. Maintaining social contact with your family and friends throughout life, and remaining as wary as possible are the best preventative measures.
Image credit: “Hands Typing” licensed under CC BY 2.0
- 1 What is elder fraud?
- 2 Why are elders targeted?
- 3 Common types of online elder fraud
- 4 How to recognize if elder fraud is happening
- 5 How to prevent elder fraud
- 5.1 Never give out any information or money based on an email
- 5.2 Never give out information or money based on a phone call unless you know and trust the person
- 5.3 Designate a trusted person for your financial advisor to talk to
- 5.4 Set up powers of attorney and other legal documents in advance
- 5.5 Use a VPN
- 6 How to report elder fraud