According to the “2018 DOJ Report on Senior Abuse and Financial Exploitation,” each year an estimated $3 billion is stolen from America’s seniors through a variety of mass mailing, romance, and vendor or contractor scams. They may also fall prey to imposters who claim to represent the IRS, Medicare or Medicaid, or Social Security. Unfortunately, New Canaan is not immune to these scams.
In 2021 our Department investigated 47 fraud complaints and some of these incidents targeted seniors. This month, a senior resident contacted our Department to report being the victim of a PayPal scam. The scammer emailed the resident and stated that a PayPal payment was received. The resident opened the fraudulent email, which may have allowed the scammer to access the resident’s computer. To dispute the alleged payment, the resident called a telephone number provided by the scammer, and the scammer told the resident to mail thousands of dollars in cash to the scammer, and then the resident would be reimbursed. Subsequently, the resident mailed the cash, was not reimbursed, and was defrauded of thousands of dollars. Sadly, it is not likely this money will be recovered.
What is Senior Fraud?
Senior fraud, which is also known as senior financial exploitation or senior financial abuse, is the abuse of financial control or misappropriation of financial resources, resulting in harm to an older victim. Most senior fraud in New Canaan involves a complete stranger. The fraudster will often make contact with their victim online or over the phone.
One common way that seniors are targeted over the internet is through email. General Phishing techniques (the fraudulent practice of sending emails purporting to be from reputable companies) are used against a large number of email addresses with messages aimed at seniors. Other schemes are more targeted and may involve emails or phone calls that are very personal and specific in nature. Targeted attacks often use information gleaned in general phishing attacks to help dupe the victim into going along with the scam, which often involves social engineering.
What is Social Engineering?
Social engineering is the art of exploiting human psychology to gain access to personal information.
- On the phone-A social engineer might call and pretend to be a fellow employee or a trusted outside authority (such as law enforcement or an auditor).
- Online-Social networking sites have made social engineering attacks easier to conduct. Today’s attackers can go to sites like LinkedIn and find all of the users that work at a company and gather plenty of detailed information that can be used to further an attack. Social engineers also take advantage of breaking news events, holidays, pop culture, and other devices to lure victims. Scammers often use fake charities to further their criminal goals around the holidays.
Why are Seniors Targeted
Seniors are disproportionately targeted as victims for fraud. Our study estimated that in 2018, 1 in 10 seniors in the US fell victim to senior fraud. Below are a few reasons why seniors are targeted.
- Isolation: Many cases of senior fraud wouldn’t have occurred at all if the victim had spoken to a friend, family member, or care giver about what was happening. The problem is that many seniors are isolated and don’t have anyone to consult.
- Trusting: Most people over 30 today have memories of a world without the internet, and seniors would have spent most of their lives without using email. That can lead to confusion over how reliable email is, and how much trust to assign it.
- Poor decision-making: It’s not uncommon to experience some level of diminished mental capacity as we age. That can tax our decision-making abilities and lead to poor choices.
Common types of Senior Fraud
One study estimated that just over half of senior fraud cases are perpetrated by strangers. The other half is committed by family members, friends or acquaintances. Many of these schemes are carried out online where email, social media, and other communication methods provide a way in for scammers.
Here are some common examples of online senior fraud:
- Charity Scams: Often times these scams will appear after a natural disaster or catastrophic world event. These scams typically involve a caller impersonating a representative from a real charity or fabricating a fake charity in order to scam you out of money.
- Grandparent Scams: A fraudster will call claiming to be your grandchild in need of help. The caller who is posing as the grandchild typically asks for money to be sent quickly to help them out of some emergency (arrest, accident, injury, etc.). They might even tell you not to tell anyone about the situation because it could make their situation worse.
- Investment Scams: Many scammers will reach out advertising a short-term investment opportunity or a way to safe-guard your assets. Typically scammers will communicate via email or telephone.
- Insurance Scams: Often this scam entails persuading you to invest money that will benefit your family upon your passing. In some cases, the insurance agent is legitimately licensed, but is still trying to commit fraud.
- IRS or Social Security Scams: Callers claim to be employees of the IRS or Social Security. You will be told you owe money to the IRS or Social Security and it must be paid promptly through a wire transfer or stored value card such as a gift card. If you refuse to cooperate you will be threatened with arrest.
- Lottery Scams: Fraudulent callers will claim you won a sweepstakes or foreign lottery. They will tell you that you have won vacations, cars, or millions of dollars. “Winners” need only pay fees for shipping, insurance, customs duties, or taxes before they can claim their prizes. This is an attempt to get you to pay hundreds or thousands of dollars and receive nothing in return.
- Romance Scams: Many individuals today use dating sites. Scammers also use these sites to meet potential victims. They create fake profiles, build online relationships, and eventually convince people to send money.
- Tech Support Scams: A fraudster will contact you via telephone or internet pop-up messages on your computer claiming to be computer technicians associated with a well-known company (i.e. Microsoft, Apple, etc.) The scammers claim they have detected viruses, other malware, or hacking attempts on your computer. They pretend to be “tech support” and will ask you to give them remote access to your computer. They will ask you to provide a credit card number or wire funds to cover the costs of the repairs to a fictitious problem with your computer.
- Widow Scams: Scammers will often look at obituaries and contact widows or widowers and use come up with a logical story about your deceased spouse owing money. They may even claim to work for a financial institution associated with the deceased.
How to Prevent Senior Fraud:
- Do not give out any personal information or money based solely on an email. Email is an unsecure means of communication and is used in a wide variety of scams. It’s easy to craft an email to make it look like it came from a trusted entity. There should be no reason to send anyone money based solely on an email request, even to people who appear to be friends or family. The same goes for personal information. If someone asks for your full name, phone number, address, date of birth, social security number, or banking information over email, this should raise concern. If emails become more frequent or have a sense of urgency, these should not be seen as signs that you should comply. Rather, they are big red flags indicating that this is a scam.
- Never give out information or money based on a phone call unless you know and trust the person. Criminals use email because it’s easy to contact a large number of potential victims with almost no effort. But, that doesn’t mean all criminals are lazy. Some fraudsters will take the time to identify victims and make telephone calls instead of sending emails. The personal touch of a phone call makes the success rate higher. Never mail cash or gift cards to someone you do not know!
- Ask lots of questions when fraudsters contact you. If you ask a lot of questions most fraudsters will will hang up. However, some of these criminals are well-prepared and will try to use their answers to convince you, but multiple questions often reveals that the story is bogus.
- Contact the New Canaan Police Department. Our Department investigates crimes related to identity theft and fraud. When appropriate, we notify and coordinate fraud investigations with the United States Secret Service and other federal agencies. If you receive a suspicious email or telephone call contact us and we will help.
- Review your monthly financial statements, and look for irregularities or fraudulent activity.
- Be cautious when making purchases or sending information over the Internet. Ensure that the website you are using is secure and uses up-to-date encryption methods.
- Give out personal information in response to unsolicited offers by telephone, email, mail, Internet or in person. Unsolicited offers are often fraudulent.
- Provide personal identifiers, account numbers, and other private information to someone unless you can ensure the information is secure. Know the person or company to whom you give information to and ask what the person or company will do with the information.
If you have been a victim of Senior Fraud:
- Call our Department at 203-594-3500, in order to report the incident.
- Organize and keep a detailed log of all of your contacts and make copies of all documents. Document the names of all people you speak with, and the time and date of your conversations.
Be better informed, connected, and send anonymous tips to our Department by downloading the “MYPD” application in the iPhone or Android marketplace. After downloading the application search for “New Canaan” and get connected.
Please contact me directly at Leon.Krolikowski@newcanaanct.gov should you have a question, concern or an idea for this column.