Have a Conversation (Not a Lecture) About Fraud With Older Adults

Chatting with older adults about fraud and scams could help everybody in the conversation avoid becoming a victim.
Alex Rosenberg
By Alex Rosenberg 
Edited by Dawnielle Robinson-Walker

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People over 60 reported more than $1.7 billion lost to fraud and scams in 2021, according to the FBI’s 2021 Elder Fraud Report. These older adults reported both the most incidents and the highest losses of any group in the report.

But that doesn’t mean you need to single out your grandparents for a phishing lesson at the next family gathering. Research shows that older adults can have additional risk factors, but everybody gets targeted by scams, and everybody gets better at avoiding scams when they’re well-informed about them.

Family members and caregivers all probably have stories to tell about their own experiences with attempted scams. That’s why Taylor Patskanick of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s AgeLab recommends a “multi-generational conversation” on the subject.

Open conversations about fraud and financial exploitation could help older adults avoid scams — but the younger participants could probably use a reminder, too.

Here’s what you should know to help make that conversation helpful to everyone involved.

Addressing risk factors for fraud

A growing body of research shows that there are several factors common among older adults that are correlated with increased susceptibility to scams. Here are a few examples:

  • Cognitive decline.

  • Social isolation.

  • Lack of knowledge about how to avoid scams.

The lack of knowledge was also a concern for a panel of adults age 85 and older discussing fraud and financial exploitation at the MIT AgeLab.

“We heard them talk a lot about really lacking information — very specific information about a type of scam that was circulating,” says Patskanick.

Those older adults also “articulated a collective understanding that they do have gaps in their knowledge of technology which can make them, sometimes, easy prey for digitally enabled financial exploitation and fraud,” according to Patskanick.

Advance warning about scams can help older adults successfully avoid future scam attempts, according to a study published in 2014 in Basic and Applied Social Psychology.

But it’s not just older adults who can benefit.

Even spending just three minutes watching a video about investing fraud techniques reduced susceptibility to financial fraud in adult participants of all ages, according to a 2021 study published by the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority — or FINRA — a nongovernmental organization that regulates the U.S. securities industry. And repeated exposure to the information helped the effect last longer.

Spending just a few minutes chatting about fraud and scams at a family gathering could help everybody avoid them in the future.

Common types of fraud and scams

Relatively few scams exclusively target older adults — though there are some, like the grandparent scam (explained below). 

Here are the most common types of fraud and scams that target older adults, as reported to the Senate Special Committee on Aging’s Fraud Hotline and/or the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center.

Tech support scam

What it is: Scammers claim to be working for well-known companies like Microsoft, Apple or Google. They might say that your computer or phone has viruses or other tech support issues, and then ask for remote access to a computer or for the recipient to buy unnecessary software or services.

What to do about it: Don’t give up computer access or personal information. Check with a trusted tech-savvy person who can help figure out if there really is an issue and who can help with it.

Government impersonation scam

What it is: Scammers claim to be working for a government agency like Social Security, Medicare or the IRS. They might say that you owe money or need a new ID card, and then ask for a payment and/or your sensitive personal information.

What to do about it: Don’t send money or give out your personal information. To confirm whether there’s actually an issue, get the official contact information for the agency from a ".gov" website like IRS.gov or USA.gov.

Grandparent scam

What it is: Scammers claim to be a grandchild or other relative. They might say that they’re in trouble and need money fast for a plane ticket, a medical bill or bail.

What to do about it: Don’t send money or give up personal information right away. Check on the family member’s whereabouts with another relative who would know, or get in touch using a phone number or online account that you know is theirs.

Sweepstakes scam

What it is: Scammers claim to represent a sweepstakes or lottery. They might say that you’ve won a big prize, but you need to pay taxes or fees to collect, and then ask for financial information or payments.

What to do about it: Don’t give up money or personal information. Real sweepstakes can’t ask you to pay to enter or get a prize.

You can report attempts at these and other scams at ReportFraud.ftc.gov.

Resources to guide conversations

Here are some additional anti-fraud resources for older adults with specific details on current scams and what to do about them:

  • The Federal Trade Commission, or FTC, has an anti-fraud campaign aimed at older adults called “Pass It On.” The campaign offers simple instructions in English and Spanish for how to identify and avoid many common types of fraud.

  • The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, or CFPB, has resources for older adults, caregivers and financial institutions. Subjects include choosing a trusted person to help protect money; planning for diminished capacity; preventing elder financial abuse; and identifying and reporting suspicious activities.

  • The U.S. Department of Justice’s Elder Justice Initiative has resources on abuse and financial exploitation of older adults and guidance for how to report issues to the appropriate authorities.

This article was written with the support of a journalism fellowship from the Gerontological Society of America, the Journalists Network on Generations and the Silver Century Foundation.

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