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Online Scams Older Adults Should Know


In 2019, New York itself had over 20,000 cases of Internet Crime Reports (1). That's thousands of scams, hacking incidents, and other crime perpetuated online. On average, a victim of such a crime stands to lose a thousand dollars (2).

Unfortunately, many of these crimes target older adults due to the population's lower familiarity with the online environment. But there are ways to prevent these frauds and to protect yourself from them. The best way to do that is through knowledge. If you know the scam and the script being followed, you can tease out the warning signs and stop these crimes before you fall victim to them.


Most scams start off with a phone call – either you receive one from a 'technician' or a person claiming to be someone of authority, or you are prompted to call a number, such as from a website claiming to be Amazon or Google. The scammers will ask you a few questions, but before long will begin the main event of the scam; they will ask to connect to your computer directly via a downloadable program. They'll direct you to go to a site and download 'team viewer,' 'RemotePC,' or any other “remote access” program.

These programs allow them to directly control your computer. You might see someone else move your mouse or type on your screen, or they may be completely silent. However, no reputable service will aim to remote control your computer from the first call, and this access should only be granted to someone you trust completely, such as a family member. If the scammers can access your computer remotely, they can then try the following scams:


Common Money Scams

These are common 'scripts' that scammers follow. If you get a call that sounds similar to these, be on the lookout for other warning signs!

  • "Your relative is in a hospital and the insurance won't cover them. You need to send us money. Don't call them, they're unconscious!"

  • "Your relative is in jail and we need bail money." They will often threaten with claims that they are police or lawyers and that you cannot hang up to call that relative to check on them.

  • Refund Scams: the scammer calls you to tell you that you have overpaid for some service, typically on the internet. Always check whether you actually purchased such a thing. If they claim you are receiving a refund for a service you don't remember, then be sure to verify first!

  • Service Scams: Sometimes scammers will feed on the anxieties around internet safety and claim they are from an anti-virus program you have purchased or been gifted. Most anti-virus programs will not call you and you should know which program you use and know whether you have paid for it or not. Ask them to clearly state which program they work for and if it is not the one you use, hang up!

  • "Congratulations! You've won [gift]! We just need you to pay shipping and taxes before we can send it to you!" As wonderful as it sounds, it is rare to win something without your knowledge. Be sure to double check if you've entered into any sweepstakes first.

  • "This is the IRS/FBI/Social Security/Immigration Services!" Scammers will often leverage fears surrounding government and beurocracy, hoping that you are too scared to think rationally. Stay calm, ask questions, and do not give any information that the agency calling you should have access to already (if your "Social Security" agent doesn't know your name or where you live, they likely do not have your file!)

Gift Cards are Not Payment!

  • Anyone who asks for gift cards, especially generic ones such as Target, Walmart, Amazon, etc., and requests the code from the back of the card in order to redeem it is absolutely a scam. Gift cards are meant to be a gift given to someone, a safer form than giving a loved one a wad of cash. No service, program, agency, etc., will ever request gift cards as a form of payment.

  • Common scams in this category include refunds and reimbursements ("we refunded you too much, please use a gift card to return the money or I'll lose my job!"), job and/or school "set-ups" ("You're hired! But you need to buy a uniform. We can process the payment via gift card."), as well as airlines, or any other situation in which a gift card is requested and no other form of payment (such as credit or check) is accepted.

Warning Signs

If everything else appears to be legitimate, but any of the below situations come up, be warned and try to verify with a source you trust before proceeding:

  • You are on your bank account on the internet and the numbers do not seem correct. You try to refresh the page or log in through a different device, but the person on the phone doesn't want you to.

  • The person on the phone is insisting you must act now - do not contact any family members or banks!

  • They do not want you to speak with any sales associates if you are in the store - if you are buying a gift card at this point, a sales associate would realize the scam if you told them who asked you for the card and warn you.

  • The person on the phone doesn't want you to visit the official website or call the official number.


In our fast paced world, it can be difficult to keep yourself safe in the digital world. But with these few guidelines, hopefully, you can keep yourself safer. Some additional information can be found at the FTC official website by following this link.


Written by Aleksandra Bator


  1. 2019 Internet Crime Report Released | Federal Bureau of Investigation. (2020). Retrieved 20 December 2020, from https://www.fbi.gov/news/stories/2019-internet-crime-report-released-021120

  2. The top frauds of 2019. (2020). Retrieved 20 December 2020, from https://www.consumer.ftc.gov/blog/2020/01/top-frauds-2019

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