Senior Citizen Scams
Scams targeting senior citizens come in all types and sizes, range greatly in complexity, and may originate from someone close to you or a stranger halfway around the world.
Below is information on some of the more common types of scams. Keep in mind that scam artists constantly reinvent new ways to perpetrate old scams. Because knowing how to spot a scam is important, we have put together a publication titled How to Spot a Scam that outlines some of the tell-tale red flags of a scam.
These scams generally begin with a call or email from a con artist posing as a representative of a well-known company, such as Microsoft or Norton. The scam artist typically claims your computer has been infected with a virus or is not working properly because of an error. The scam artist then says that he can remove the virus or fix the error for a fee if you allow him to remotely access your computer, usually by going to a website. In some cases, the scam artist uses this access to steal personal or financial information on your computer, which can be used to commit the crimes of theft or identity theft. Other times, the scam artist may attempt to install malware on your computer, which may allow the scam artist to control the computer remotely, or rogue applications that display fake security alerts to convince you to pay for a useless service. More information is available in our publication titled Scams Targeting Computer Owners.
Under this scam, a con artist calls or emails you posing as a relative in distress or someone purporting to represent the relative (such as a lawyer or police officer). The scam artist may frantically begin the phone call with a variation of “Grandpa, it’s me,” followed by a description of his or her purported problem (arrested, in jail, in a car accident, in need of a lawyer, etc.). The scam artist will likely attempt to create a sense of urgency and encourage you not to tell anyone, including the parents of the “grandchild,” about the matter. You will then be instructed to send cash—usually by wire transfer, money order or a reloadable card—with the claim that the money will be used for bail, lawyer’s fees, hospital bills, or other expenses. For more information on this scam, view our publication titled Beware of Scams Targeting Grandparents.
Lottery scams typically begin with an unexpected email, letter or phone call from a scam artist who claims you have won money in a lottery or sweepstakes. This seemingly good news might quicken your pulse, but do not let it override your good judgment. Invariably, the scam artist will ask you to send money to pay purported taxes, insurance or other fees to claim the winnings. Or, the scam artist may ask for your bank account information, supposedly so your winning can be directly transferred into your bank account. The scam artist uses this information to empty your bank account. Once the money has been sent, contact with the scam artist is cut off, and the money is lost for good. More information on lottery scams is available in our publications titled Avoid Foreign Lotteries and Jamaican Lottery Scams.
Unscrupulous sales people instill and prey upon seniors’ financial fears in order to sell unwanted, unnecessary, or unsuitable living trusts, legal plans, and other financial products. You may receive a phone call or flyer asking permission to allow someone to come to your home to give you guidance about probate or inviting you to attend a “free dinner” at a popular restaurant to learn more about wills, trusts, and estate plans. During the presentation, the salesperson may use deceptive and high-pressure sales tactics to lure you into buying a living trust, often costing over $2,000. Do not let this happen to you. More information is available in our publication Living Trust Mills.
Medicare and Social Security Scams
Under this scam, a con artist calls you posing a Medicare, Social Security, or insurance company representative. The caller generally claims that new Medicare, Social Security, or supplemental insurance benefits cards are being issued or that your file must be updated. The scam artist will then ask you to provide or verify your personal or financial information. Never provide this sort of private information to an unknown person over the phone, as disclosure of this information can lead to identity theft and unauthorized withdrawals from your financial accounts. More information is available in our publication Medicare and Social Security Scams.
Identity theft occurs when another person uses your personal information to commit fraud. Identity thieves often apply for loans or open credit card accounts in someone else’s name. If your personal information has been disclosed to an unknown party, you may be at risk of identity theft. More information on the steps you can take to further protect yourself is available in our handbook Guarding Your Privacy: Tips to Prevent Identity Theft. You can also view our webpage on identity theft, which has additional resources for identity theft victims. If an unknown party has your bank or credit card information, you should immediately contact your financial institution, as it should be able to help you protect your account.
People should be alert for magazine sales companies that use high-pressure telemarketers or door-to-door solicitors, phony invoices or renewal notices, or deceptive premature renewal tactics. To make their offers sound better, these companies sometimes claim that a portion of the sales will be donated to a charity or offer shopping sprees or gift cards that turn out not to be worth much. After signing people up, these companies sometimes make it difficult to cancel subscriptions and obtain refunds, which may end up costing people hundreds of dollars for magazines they do not want. For more information these types of magazine scams, view our publications titled Magazine Subscription Solicitations and Beware of Premature Magazine Renewal Notices.
Scam artist often target seniors with promises of easy money. The pitch might come in the form of an investment opportunity that promises big returns. Regardless, you will be required to send money up front to make the promised returns. Beware of investment offers that sound too good to be true or use high pressure sales pitches to get you to sign up quickly. Consult with a trusted professional for investment advice. Most importantly, never invest money before thoroughly researching the offer. More information on unsuitable investments is available in our publications titled Don't Throw Your Retirement Savings Down the Drain and Annuities: Beware of Unsuitable Investments for Seniors.
Most of these scams are operated by criminals who are violating the criminal laws. Under Minnesota law, local police departments and sheriff’s offices are the officials with the authority to investigate criminal wrongdoing. You should report criminal activity to your local police department and sheriff’s office. If they do not have jurisdiction to investigate your case, they should be able to refer you to the appropriate criminal authorities. Federal officials may also have authority to investigate criminal scams. You should also report such scams to the following federal agencies, as appropriate:
Federal Bureau of Investigation
1501 Freeway Boulevard
Brooklyn Center, MN 55430
United States Postal Inspection Service
1745 Stout Street, Suite 900
Denver, CO 80299-3034
In addition, you should report such scams to the Federal Trade Commission as follows:
Federal Trade Commission
Bureau of Consumer Protection
600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20580
TTY: (866) 653-4261
If you have concerns about a particular offer or believe you are the victim of a scam, we also want to hear from you. You may call us at (651) 296-3353 (Twin Cities Calling Area) or (800) 657-3787 (Outside the Twin Cities), or submit a Consumer Assistance Request Form or Fraud Report Form to:
Office of Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson
445 Minnesota Street, Suite 1400
St. Paul, MN 55101
The Minnesota Attorney General’s Office offers the following materials, which are designed to provide more information to Minnesota seniors about scams in the marketplace:
- Grandparents Scams
- Computer Scams
- Seniors Guide to Fighting Fraud
- Retirement Savings
- Living Trust Mills
- Medicare and Social Security Scams
- Magazine Renewal Notices
- Fake Checks
- Jamaican Lottery Scam
- Door-to-Door Sales
- Long Term Care Insurance
- Security Alarms
- Secret Shoppers