The internet makes it easier than ever to keep in touch with loved ones, learn new things, access important information, and more. Unfortunately, there’s also an increasing number of bad actors targeting older adults online. According to the National Council on Aging, online scams targeting older adults are on the rise. In 2021 alone, the FBI confirmed there were more than 90,000 older victims of fraud resulting in $1.7 billion in losses—a 74% increase in losses compared to 2020. And those are just the cases that were reported.
So, how can you avoid online scams?
Here are a few tips.
Start by setting up good defense systems
As they say, the best defense is a good offense. To keep scam artists at bay, you may want to:
- Set up credit monitoring and identity theft protection.
- Install reputable antivirus software on your devices and consider a tech support subscription.
- Set your social media profiles to “friends only.”
- Learn how to block and report suspicious emails.
- Consider having a family “safe word” that you can use to confirm family members’ identities online if you encounter suspicious messages or outreach.
Learn about common kinds of scams
Criminals mostly target older adults for financial gain or identity theft. They may pose as government representatives, charity employees, tech support experts, and even romantic interests.
The most common online scams include:
Authority impersonation: In this scenario, you get an official-looking email or robocall from the IRS, Social Security, Medicare, a well-known bank, etc. The email might threaten the victim with drastic consequences (e.g., cutting off government benefits, jail time, deportation) if they don’t pay a fee immediately. Alternatively, they trick people into providing personal information (i.e., “Just confirm your social security number”)—leading to identity theft.
Tech support scams: Scammers will pose as tech support professionals and tell you that your computer is infected with a virus or needs an update. Then, scammers will ask for money to repair the computer. Or, worse, they’ll ask for remote access to the computer—giving the criminals access to passwords and other sensitive information.
The “grandparent scam:” In these cases, scammers contact you about a relative (often a grandchild) who has an emergency. The scammers ask for money to be sent urgently to help. They may even use information they found online about a real grandchild/relative to make the scam seem more believable.
Sweetheart or catfish scams: Preying on a lonely individual, a scammer poses as an admirer and cultivates an online relationship over weeks or months. They may even have detailed fake social media profiles that look real. Eventually, the “admirer” asks for money to visit the victim, get medical care, or get out of a legal situation.
Sweepstakes, lotteries, and free gift tricks: You get an email or call announcing you’ve won a prize or are eligible for a free gift. As the “prize winner,” you’re asked to send money for processing fees, taxes, or shipping, but the prize never comes. And the free gift might come at the cost of giving scammers personal information they can use in future scams.
Charity scams: Scam artists pose as charities or “Go Fund Me” recipients. Especially after a natural disaster or significant event, scam artists share poignant stories on social media—collecting money for charities or families that don’t exist.
Medical scams: Finally, there are health-related scams that trick people into buying suspiciously low-priced medications, investing in miracle cures, or providing personal information for free COVID tests or clinical trials. You might encounter these “opportunities” via online ads, emails, websites, or social media posts.
Learn how to spot a scammer
Whether it’s an email, social media message, or internet pop-up, online scam artists can be convincing. But they do have some telltale tricks that give them away.
Be suspicious if:
- You get an unexpected and/or urgent message asking for money or personal information.
- Someone you’ve only “met” online asks for money or help.
- An organization asks for sensitive personal information, such as a full Social Security number.
- A tech support person, who proactively contacted you, asks for access to their computer. (Note: It’s ok to allow access to your computer if you called a trusted tech support service for help.)
- An organization’s website address, email address, or phone number is different from what you’ve seen before.
- An email or message has a significant number of uncommon spelling and grammar mistakes.
Know how to react when something feels fishy
If you get a suspicious email, text, online prompt, or message:
1. Don’t panic or make rush decisions. Remember trustworthy organizations or friends wouldn’t pressure you to send money, provide personal details, or access your computer online.
2. Get more information. Find out if the message you received is legitimate by contacting the organization or individual through a verified email or phone number, like a customer service helpline. You can also check independent review websites—such as the Better Business Bureau and Charity Navigator—to see if an organization is listed and has good ratings. And, if you receive communication from the Social Security Administration, you can verify whether it’s real by calling 1-800-772-1213.
3. Ask for help. Ask a family member, a trusted friend, or AARP’s Fraud Watch Network™ helpline (1-800-677-1116) to help you decide if you need help understanding the message or whether to respond to it. The AARP helpline is a toll-free service that provides guidance for older adults around financial scams and is available from 8 am to 8 pm ET, Monday - Friday.
What to do if it happens to you
We all want to feel capable and self-sufficient. But being contacted by a scammer—or even being scammed—can happen to anyone. Countless “senior scams” go unreported because older adults are embarrassed or don’t know who to call—until it’s too late. Unfortunately, in most cases, the scammers aren’t caught. But moving quickly will help you minimize the damage.
If you or someone you know falls victim to a scam, here’s what to do next:
- Remember that it could happen to anyone. You are a victim of a crime, and you shouldn’t feel embarrassed or ashamed about it.
- Report the incident to your local police and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). Gather any information you have about the scam, including emails, text messages, screen grabs, etc. to provide to the authorities. Reporting incidents to the FTC can sometimes help you recover losses and it helps others avoid similar scams.
- If Social Security numbers were captured, alert Social Security and all three credit bureaus.
- If bank information was exposed, contact your bank.
Together, we can minimize the scammers
With many of us spending more online, it’s more likely that a scam artist will cross our paths. However, if we know what to look for and continue to report scams to the authorities, we’ll be able to beat them at their own game.