It’s a sad fact of life: Criminals target older Americans for fraud.
Many older folks have nest eggs. Cybersecurity is not their second language. They came of age during more trusting times. And they may be coping with isolation, diminished eyesight, hearing loss or other health issues.
Crooks exploit these vulnerabilities, but make no mistake: All of us — young and old — are susceptible to the bad actors who show up uninvited in calls, emails, mail, texts and tweets. Some are so bold as to knock on our front doors.
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Fraud “is a crime that rips people’s souls apart,” says Anthony Pratkanis, an authority on the topic and professor emeritus of psychology at the University of California Santa Cruz. When it happens, financial loss is compounded by psychological hurt, feelings of vulnerability and even the death of one’s dreams, he says.
It’s role reversal when a younger person needs to counsel an elder, so you might want to frame these safeguards as steps that you, too, will take, Pratkanis says. As there are many techniques, consider tackling one a week.
Pratkanis and AARP’s Amy Nofziger took the lead in providing the anti-fraud measures below. Nofziger oversees the AARP Fraud Watch Network’s free helpline, 877-908-3360.
Nofziger suggests starting out with a nonconfrontational chat about a common scam and then role playing to game out how to deter it.
Here are the 10 key steps:
1. Start the conversation, if possible, before fraud has occurred. If it has, never blame the victim — it’s the criminal who is at fault.
If a son or daughter has a strained relationship with a parent, they could ask a parent’s friend, other relative or professional to step in, Pratkanis says.
Also, an older person seeking guidance can initiate the discussion by showing this story to someone who can help, he says.
2. Speed and silence will hurt you. The ruses vary: A purported problem with Social Security benefits; a grandchild “in jail” and in need of cash; or a sweepstakes prize “waiting to be claimed” once taxes or fees are paid.
During such deception, crooks often urge you to act fast. Instead, slow down. Many times they insist on secrecy, but the last thing you should do is keep quiet. Instead, talk things over with someone you trust.
4. Safeguard personally identifiable information (PII), such as your Social Security, Medicare and credit card numbers and information about other financial accounts.
5. Stay safe online. Use unique, complex passwords for each online account. Ensure antivirus and security software is up to date on devices.
Never click on links or attachments in unexpected texts or emails. Beware of look-alike websites with logos and language “cloned” from legitimate sites.
If a pop-up ad appears on your computer or an alarm sounds to warn of a supposed technical problem, take a photo or a screen shot of the warning — and turn the computer off. That alert might be phonier than a $3 bill.
Ensure your anti-malware is up to date and run a system scan. If that’s a challenge, get help from an acquaintance or computer technician.
6. Stay safe on the phone. Prepare a “refusal script” and post it in a convenient place so you’re ready if a shady person calls. It could read: “No, thanks,” “Do not call again,” or “I do not send money or disclose information by phone.”
Another tactic is to hang up — and save your manners for people who deserve them.
7. Monitor credit card and other financial statements. Ask your card issuer for real-time alerts whenever the card is used or when card use meets specified criteria, like hitting a certain dollar amount.
8. Get free copies of your credit reports from the major credit bureaus: Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. Set up a credit freeze to prevent a crook from establishing accounts or borrowing in your name; you can lift the freeze at any time.
9. Be social media savvy. Check privacy settings to restrict who can view your posts — and never accept a friend request from someone you don’t know.
And don’t overshare: There’s no need to reveal your birthday or tell the world you’re off beachcombing in Bora-Bora.
10. Report the crime. If you or a loved one has been victimized, report it to law enforcement and the Federal Trade Commission. You’ll be taking a stand and, hopefully, sparing another person from suffering.
Bonus tip: Stay abreast of emerging frauds by visiting AARP’s website and the Federal Trade Commission’s.
- Enter trusted contacts on your phone to help identify who is calling. Do the same for loved ones.
- Feel free to let “unknown” calls go directly to voice mail, since the caller likely will leave a message if the call is important.
- Talk to your telephone service provider about call-blocking tools and apps to block unwanted calls. Some services are free; others carry a fee. You can review these apps in Google Play or the App Store.
- If you receive a spam call or text on your phone, block the number.
- Report texting scam attempts to your wireless service provider by forwarding unwanted texts to 7726 (SPAM).
- File a complaint about illegal calls or texts with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).
- Be aware call spoofing lets bad actors mask their identities by causing fake information to appear on caller ID. That means a local number could arise from anywhere.
- If an unexpected caller purports to be from the government or another entity, hang up and call a phone number you verify as genuine. Don’t trust the first number that shows up on a Google search; manipulative criminals can make a fake number appear high in search results.
- If you suspect a scam call, do not respond to questions, especially those answered “Yes.” A crook can record the affirmation and exploit it later to commit fraud.
- Add your phone numbers to the National National Do Not Call Registry to limit unwanted calls.
- Finally, learn additional ways to stop robocalls and texts from the FCC.
Katherine Skiba covers scams and fraud for AARP. Previously she was a reporter with the Chicago Tribune, U.S. News & World Report, and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. She was a recipient of Harvard University's Nieman Fellowship and is the author of the book, Sister in the Band of Brothers: Embedded with the 101st Airborne in Iraq.