Scammers set their sights on older people
5 min | 20 September 2021
As sad as it is, seniors make attractive targets for scammers, possibly because they're perceived to be more vulnerable and the assumption that they're less likely to report. We highlight common scams and walk you through the steps you can take to help protect yourself and your loved ones.
It's an uncomfortable truth. But when it comes to fraud, age matters.
43% of seniors think they've been targeted by scammers.
Worse, a senior is defrauded every 40 seconds, potentially losing a sizeable chunk — if not all — of their retirement savings and harming their well-being.
As awkward as it might be, it's important to have a chat with them. Explain what they should look out for and walk them through the steps they can take to help protect themselves.
The ideal victim
Scammers target seniors for three main reasons.
- Firstly, they assume they have more money than other age groups. Seniors are more likely to have paid off their mortgages and less likely to have dependent children. Age UK says the rules allowing you to withdraw your pension savings on your 55th birthday have also encouraged scammers
- Secondly, seniors are more likely to feel lonely and isolated if they've been widowed. Loneliness can make you more susceptible to being conned
- Lastly, seniors are less likely to report being scammed, because they feel ashamed, blame themselves, or fear they'll potentially lose their independence
Common scams and how to avoid them
Scams targeted at seniors can take several forms.
In bereavement scams, callous criminals target you at your most vulnerable — the death of a spouse — by posing as debt collectors. Or as employees of a legitimate company calling about 'suspicious activity' on accounts that don't exist.
It's shockingly easy to get tricked, because it's hard to think clearly at such a distressing time. Obituaries also contain personal information like date of death and next of kin details, so the caller can sound very believable.
Other common scams can include:
- Doorstep scams - where someone pretends they're a gas or electricity engineer, conducting a survey, or collecting for charity
- Pension scams - the fraudster will tell them about an unmissable but time-sensitive opportunity to grow their retirement savings
- Romance scams - often targeted at people who are recently widowed
- Cold calls, texts, or emails from someone who says they're from an organisation they trust, like a bank, broadband supplier, or the government
- Emails or texts from a 'long lost relative' who needs money to get out of a sticky situation
Too good to be true: How to recognise and avoid impersonation scams
Many scams share common features. So tell your friends and neighbours to always be alert, and to be extra careful if:
- Someone emails, texts, calls, or shows up at their door unexpectedly
- The caller is aggressive or tries to pressure them into sending money there and then
- The caller asks for sensitive details like a password or PIN. A legitimate company would never do this
- The offer sounds too good to be true. For example, investments with high-interest rates, or that allow you to withdraw your pension before you're 55 (this is generally only possible in exceptional circumstances, for instance if you're seriously ill)
To trust or not to trust? Romance scams, investment scams, and other online confidence tricks
Spotting the signs: how to tell a loved one has been scammed
Experts believe as little as around 5% of fraud against seniors gets reported.
So how can you tell that a loved one might've been scammed but is keeping it to themselves?
A surefire sign something isn't right is that money seems tight when it shouldn't be. Your loved one may also seem upset or on edge for no apparent reason.
Other tell-tale signs can include:
- Your loved one mentions that someone new is helping them out. This could be a scammer posing as an 'account manager' or even a neighbour who buys them groceries and pockets part of the money
- Sudden changes to their financial affairs. For example, they've switched bank or pension provider unexpectedly
- They're receiving unusual volumes of mail, texts, or phone calls from strangers
- You notice evidence of large unexplained payments or cash withdrawals
Is it time for a heart-to-heart?
While seniors are targeted more than any other age group, getting scammed isn't inevitable and there are some precautions they can take to try and reduce the chances of it happening, tell them to:
- Always verify a caller or visitor's identity. Remind them never to invite someone into their home unless they're certain the person is who they say they are
- If anything doesn't feel right, look up the company's number from a PC, tablet or friend's phone. Call the company back from a different phone to than the one they called you on, incase the call is intercepted. They'll confirm if the call, text, email or visit is genuine
- Keep sensitive documents safe and never give out passwords or PINs, even to someone they know. If they must give a neighbour money for groceries, for instance, ask for the receipt and pay by bank transfer
Think a loved one is at risk?
Banks, utility suppliers, and other companies may also be able to help, for example by putting in place enhanced security features or registering your loved one for priority services (Opens in new window).
Worried about getting scammed?
Learn more about common scams and how to avoid them.
- Age.org.uk Report dated April 2015 "Only the tip of the iceberg: Fraud against older people"
- Age.org.uk Article dated 31 July 2019 "Older person becomes victim of fraud every 40 seconds"
- TheCut.com Article dated 12 January 2016 "Why we all fall for con artists"
- FBI.gov Article dated 13 February 2017 "Online Imposters Break Hearts and Bank Accounts"
- BBC.co.uk Article dated 23 September 2018 "Reports of frauds on the elderly are 'tip of iceberg'"