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  • Rudy Palma

Steps You Can Take to Avoid Elder Fraud

Updated: Mar 17, 2022

As Lily Tomlin observed, “No matter how cynical you get, it's never enough to keep up.”

That scam artists have taken advantage of the fact that seniors and older people are less likely to detect their schemes is a given. We have even spoken about it previously:

However, with the pandemic now about to hit its two-year mark, with life only halfway back to normal, many of them have stepped up their efforts to swindle and grift, forcing the rest of us to stay on our toes.

In fact, elder fraud is so rampant that, according to the FBI, it has recently settled upon a rate of $3 billion in annual losses. (You read that right!) With the senior population expected to increase, the problem is likely to be compounded as time goes by.

Certainly, older people are not the exclusive targets. I know I still need to pause for a moment when I see a call flash across my screen from an unknown number or study an unexpected e-mail from a company or organization when something seems too good to be true or doesn’t quite measure up.

The number of times my mother has told me Amazon has left a voicemail for us on our answering machine is absurd. Of course, this is bread and butter spam – Amazon doesn’t call customers. Neither does PayPal nor the Social Security Administration.

Now, with wartime conditions in Europe, scammers are preying on peoples' inclination help others in need by soliciting donations on behalf of the people of Ukraine. Of course, that’s not where the money is going.

In a world where technology can predict our every move – how many of us have found ads trying to sell us items we recently considered purchasing? – it’s that much easier to be vulnerable to those with less than honorable intentions.

Unless your solution is to live off the grid, then the best plan of action is to be vigilant. There are steps you can take to do just that, and beat con artists at their own game:

Double check every company or organization you hear from online to be sure it’s legitimate, with no misspellings.

Do the same when receiving e-mails from sources that look in the least bit suspicious – if someone is purporting to represent a company, their e-mail address should be linked to the website. (I.E. A representative of Sears should appear as something like

If you’re inclined to donate to a charity or cause, find the means to donate on your own. Visit their official website or call their listed phone number. Never trust solicitors.

Steer clear of anyone who asks you to engage in a transaction using gift cards as any kind of payment. This a major red flag. If cash is just as viable, why are they insisting on a gift card?

If a “relative” calls in distress saying they need bail money or quick cash to escape a financial emergency, do not panic, ask for details, and don’t make any moves until you’re sure the caller is legitimate. This is a very common scam. (Recently, someone I know almost fell for this until the caller called him “grandpa” - none of his grandchildren call him that.)

Never offer your personal identification or credit card details to someone unless it was your own idea, and you have already verified the legitimacy of the person making contact.

You also may be told you’ve won a sweepstakes or raffle. If you really won, congratulations! However, if they ask for your credit card information or bank account details, steer clear immediately. If state lottery winners whose jackpots are in the millions don’t have to disclose their personal details, then why should you? If you don’t remember entering into a drawing for that prize, that’s another red flag.

The principal of “too good to be true” also applies to cryptocurrency schemes. Many scam artists even employ the use of fake apps that appear legitimate. Yet again, the primary red flag is that your credit card and bank account information are asked for right off the bat. Only a trusted friend or relative should ever ask for those details.

The same is true, unfortunately, of online dating, where lonely or widowed older people are unconscionably targeted. All of us, however, are vulnerable here – how can we really know the picture of the person we see is the one sending us the message?

No one who considers you a romantic interest should ever ask for your credit card or payment of any kind. Only someone intimate and well known to you should ever request this under any circumstances. Sadly, many scammers can successfully coax vulnerable people – particularly seniors – to send them payments totaling thousands of dollars before they finally realize they have been fooled. Sometimes, in fact, they never grasp that they have been lied to, clinging to the belief that a connection will still result.

This is made possible because these criminals are sophisticated manipulators who know how to sound benevolent, caring and loving.

Compounding the pain of being swindled and exploited is the shame many feel after they have been duped. Consequently, they seldom call the police or tell anyone what has happened. This allows these criminals to continue unabated.

It is despicable that so many con artists continue to prey upon those who are trusting and vulnerable. However, they are not the only ones doing so – many legitimate home shopping companies make untold millions from older customers who buy scores of products they don’t need to forge what feels like a social connection. It may be legal on paper, but that doesn't make it right.

Sometimes, however, right does prevail.

In 2014, a scam artist based in Jamaica phoned a man in his 90s to tell him he had won a phony lottery sweepstakes. (The only means of securing the prize was for the man to invest money first, naturally.) The criminal was very clever, having profiled the man as a prime, vulnerable target.

However, he neglected to uncover one critical piece of information – the man he was calling had served as Director of both the FBI and the CIA.

William Webster recognized the signs of a scam immediately and carefully recorded the phone conversations, which included cryptic threats of stalking Webster and his wife and gunning them down. He then turned them over to the FBI. The would-be thief, Keniel Thomas, was subsequently sentenced to six years in federal prison.

However, many are not as shrewd or sophisticated as Webster was. This allows those like Thomas to successfully take advantage of those who are most vulnerable by making similar threats.

Remember to always practice vigilance and look for the red flags. That means it is important to use common sense, trust your intuition and, when in doubt, do your own research or consult a more tech-savvy friend you can trust for advice. Your local law enforcement is always a phone call away and happy to help as well – after all, if something illegal is happening, they should be the first to know.

Never take a chance, especially when your finances and personal safety are on the line.

Even if you are a younger person, or feel this doesn’t apply to you, remember to think of the older people in your life who are potentially vulnerable to these schemes. Take the time to caution them as well as to welcome them to run anything by you that arouses their suspicion. Make sure they understand they can keep an open heart while employing a healthy dose of cynicism.

After all, every one of us deserves our dignity, regardless of age.


Aging in Place. (2021, December 21). Top Internet Scams Affecting the Elderly.

Andrews, P. (2014, December 28). Hattiesburg American. Mississippi.

Elder Fraud. (2022). Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Lim, C. M., & Kim, Y. K. (2011). Older consumers’ TV home shopping: Loneliness, parasocial interaction, and perceived convenience. Psychology and Marketing, 28(8), 763–780.

Romance Scams. (2022, February 11). Federal Bureau of Investigation.

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