t’s a story that happens all too often. Angie Kennard’s father had met someone on a dating website, and the woman quickly began pouring her heart out to the 79-year-old despite never meeting him in person. During the exchanges, the woman started requesting money to support her and her daughter, and that “support” blossomed into $700,000 over the course of a couple years.
While most scams may not be as severe this one, the act of scamming elderly people is a massive problem in the United States. Scams that start on the Internet are becoming more and more frequent among this population, too, especially as Internet-savvy folks start to age.
Before we get into how to prevent these scams, let’s discuss how and why seniors get scammed as well as how frequently it happens.
Seniors Getting Scammed, by the Numbers
Scammers do not discriminate when it comes to who they try and get money out of: rich, poor, black, white, 65 and healthy, 85 and ailing. They’ll try and take money from anyone.
The American Journal of Public Health estimates that about 5 percent of the elderly population (which equates to around two to three million people) suffer from some sort of scam every year. “What’s worse, it’s very likely an underestimate,” said David Brune, a professor at the University of Toronto. This is most likely because it’s expected that a large percentage of Internet scams go unreported.
Scamming the elderly is a multi-billion dollar business for people around the U.S. that drains the elderly of their retirement funds and government benefits. The Orlando Sentinel (using a Department of Justice report) points out that elderly people lose out on about $3 billion to scammers every year.
Less conservative estimates project that seniors lose up to $36 billion every year. The Sentinel also reported (based on Federal Trade Commission report) that the median amount that someone over 80 lost was over $1,000 and the median amount someone between 70 and 79 lost was over $600.
Why These Scams Happen
Far too many elderly people fall victim to scams, but it’s not their fault. This population is largely trustworthy and made up of financially fruitful people whose cognition may have decreased due to varying ailments. Let’s dig into the characteristics and reasons why elderly people become vulnerable to scammers.
Loneliness can eat away at many facets of a senior’s life, including making them become extremely susceptible to scams. First off, when they are isolated, there isn’t anyone to provide a check-in on their finances. It may be far too late to do anything if a loved one finds out about it years later. Isolated elderly people also may be more vulnerable to social interaction, which can set them up for an eager scammer who uses a “relationship” to start their scheme.
An elderly person’s financial situation is a major reason why they become targets for scams. On one side, an elderly person could have millions of dollars at hand after saving for retirement and getting monthly pension checks and government benefits. This may make the person a little less strict with their money, which in turn makes an email or message from a “grandson” requesting money a no-brainer. On the other hand, a senior could be financially insecure and in need of a get-rich-quick source of income, making a pyramid scheme appealing without knowing that they’ll never get their money back.
The FBI says that people who grew up in the 1920s, ‘30s, and ‘40s—a.k.a. those frequently targeted for scams—are generally more trusting than other generations, which makes them susceptible to con artists who want to find the most vulnerable personalities.
Sometimes, the elderly simply get bullied into handing over money to scammers. Whether in-person or over the phone, a scammer could relentlessly press an elderly person for money until they break. Additionally, a scammer may target an elderly person’s own insecurities like their health or social status, saying that they need to pay a certain medical bill or else they will no longer be able to receive government-funded health insurance.
As we age, we are more likely to have some sort of cognitive brain condition like dementia, which affects memory and overall cognitive function. These cognitive conditions can affect your memory in myriad ways, including who your family is and how much money you have—and what’s real or fake. Scammers will attack these weaknesses. For instance, a scammer can call someone in their 80s pretending to be their grandchild. The elderly person may remember they have a grandchild, but they may not remember their actual names or what they sound like, so they’ll go along with whatever the scammer is saying.
The elderly can simply get embarrassed by getting scammed, leading them to not report it to the authorities. This makes them attractive targets because scammers know there’s a high possibility they won’t get caught for trying to (or succeeding in) dupe someone. On top of that, many elderly people have no idea where to report scams to, which is sadly all the better for scammers.
Aside from why seniors may be targeted, these scams come in various forms that take advantage of their vulnerabilities.