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3 Senior Scams and Ways to Avoid Them

3 Senior Scams and Ways to Avoid Them

Written by John Ferrari

  • The IRS calls you: You owe back taxes, and you need to pay immediately or face legal action.
  • Your granddaughter calls you: She’s in trouble and needs money.
  • Your credit card company emails you: They need to verify your account right away.

Are any of these urgent requests for your money or personal information legitimate? Not likely. They’re examples of telephone and email scams, many of which target seniors.

You’ve probably heard of these scams. Maybe you’ve thought it won’t happen to you—but there’s a good chance you will receive fraudulent calls and emails if you haven’t already. Fraud complaints to the Federal Trade Commission rose to record levels last year: nearly 1.7 million reported. Complaints of government imposter scams, in which criminals posing as representatives of the IRS, Social Security Administration or other government agencies call or email attempting to coerce victims into sending them money or personal information, jumped 53% in 2019 from the previous year.

There are other imposter scams to watch out for too, including fraudsters impersonating relatives calling with an urgent need for money and internet pop-up windows warning you must contact a technical support center immediately. In 2019 more than $660 million was lost to imposter scams, but there are steps you can take to avoid becoming the next victim.

Besides the element of impersonation, these scams all have one thing in common, says Todd Felker, Torrance Memorial’s information security officer. They all rely on creating a sense of urgency. The intent, he says, is to keep the intended victim—that’s you—from taking a moment to stop and think. “Always stop and say, ‘I need some time to think about this,’” Felker says—and then hang up. “Don’t stay on the line if you are at all suspicious. Don’t give out any personal information—from your mother’s maiden name to the name of your pet. The criminal at the other end of the line may be trying to get information he or she can use to gain access to your accounts,” he adds.

Don’t call back. You should not call a number someone gives you over the telephone. Instead, dial a number you know is correct. If someone calls you claiming to be from your bank or credit card company, for example, call the number on the back of your ATM card or credit card. If someone calls claiming to represent your cable company or the Social Security Administration, call the number listed on your monthly cable bill or Social Security statement.

And if your granddaughter (or grandson, or nephew) calls with a desperate plea for money? Tell her you’ll call her back—even if you must make up an excuse to get off the phone. Give yourself five minutes to think about the situation. Talk to a friend.

No representative of any company, government agency or police department—no one—will make you buy store gift cards and give them the numbers, as scammers sometimes do, or transfer money using Bitcoin. Neither the IRS nor the Social Security Administration will call and ask you to verify your identity. “Don’t ever take an action you don’t have time to think about and talk to someone else about,” Felker says. “And never be afraid to get the police involved.”

As for email and internet fraud attempts: Don’t reply - just close the email or internet window. If you’d like to respond to an email—you don’t want to disregard legitimate emails, after all—send an email to an address you know is correct—for example, the email address on a monthly paper statement.

“Go ahead and bookmark official websites,” Felker suggests. “Have them in your browser.” Or simply search for the website you want to visit, using Google or another well-known search engine. “You can trust that more than you can trust an email,” Felker explains. That way, you’ll know you’re not sending an email to a malicious email address or visiting a “spoofed” (fake) website. Among his other top tips to stay safe while you surf the web: Use a different password for each site you visit and each online account you have. If you write down your passwords, keep that paper safe—preferably in a safe!

Just as important, keep your computer up-to-date. “New vulnerabilities are identified on a daily basis,” Felker says. “Be sure to keep either your Mac or Windows operating system up-to-date with all current security patches. As a rule of thumb, all program/application manufacturers are always patching and updating their software to address vulnerabilities, so it is good practice to keep everything up-to-date.” If you’re not comfortable doing that yourself, he adds, at least once a quarter have a tech-savvy friend come over and help out, or use a trusted computer repair service—say, one recommended by a friend.

The same is true for your smartphone. Keep the software up-to-date. Your smartphone is a small computer you can carry with you, which makes it convenient but also susceptible to hackers who may be lurking in the vicinity.

When you’re using your smartphone away from home, keep your calls and your data safe from prying electronic eyes. Use a virtual private network (VPN) and your phone’s cell service, rather than WiFi, if possible. Again, if you’re not comfortable setting up a VPN on your phone or switching between WiFi and cell service, have a friend help. After all, that’s what friends—real friends—are for.