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Why Older LGBTQ Adults May Be More Vulnerable to Fraud

Economic insecurity, history of discrimination can increase risk of financial abuse

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Consumers lost more than $5.8 billion to scams last year, up 70 percent from 2020, according to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), and anyone of any age can be victimized. But some groups may be more vulnerable to these crimes than others, including older members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) community.

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There’s very little hard data on the number of LGBTQ scam victims; the FTC and others who track these crimes don’t ask victims about their sexual orientation or gender identity. But advocates like David Vincent believe this community is “definitely more at risk.”

Vincent is the chief program officer at SAGE, an organization that provides services and support for older LGBTQ people. The 50-plus LGBTQ population is expected to grow from 2.4 million to more than 5 million by 2030, according to the Movement Advancement Project (MAP), a research group focused on equity issues.

“We hear from people all throughout the country that they're victims of horrible fraud and abuse,” Vincent says.

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Why? Older LGBTQ people are more likely than heterosexuals in their age group to experience isolation, financial insecurity and discrimination — all risk factors for fraud, he says.

Romance scam risk

Fraud experts and LGBTQ advocates say older members of the community are at particular risk of romance scams. Typically, perpetrators present a false persona online (often through dating sites such as Grindr or Feeld) to attract a victim, spend time fostering trust and intimacy, send and request explicit photos, and finally request or demand money, often in the form of gift cards or, increasingly, cryptocurrency.

The scammer might cite a supposed medical emergency or say they want the money to travel for an in-person visit. Or they may try to extort money, threatening to share compromising pictures or messages with the victim’s friends, family or coworkers.

Combating Isolation

Connect2Affect, a service of the AARP Foundation, provides resources to help older adults mitigate social isolation, including a digital assessment tool to determine risk and a chatbot to guide people looking to rebuild their social connections.  

Someone who isn’t fully out as LGBTQ can be especially vulnerable to this kind of “sextortion” scheme, notes Michael Herndon, deputy assistant director of the U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s Office of Older Americans.

“That sense of privacy and protecting yourself seems to be a theme that we've heard a good bit,” Herndon says. “It’s certainly one for older generations, who didn’t experience the openness” toward LGBTQ people that has become more widespread in recent years.

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Romance scams in general are on the rise, and victims are losing far more money on average, according to the FBI. The bureau received 24,299 reports of romance scams in 2021, a 25 percent increase from two years earlier, with losses jumping from $475 million to $956 million in that period. Nearly half of victims — 48 percent — are over 50.

More isolated, wary of authorities

In a newly released AARP survey of 2,004 LGBTQ Americans 45 and older, 8 in 10 said they are not sure they will have adequate family or social supports in their later years. And more than half of respondents (52 percent) said they felt left out, lacked companionship or felt lonely.

By comparison, only about a quarter of the broader 50-plus population reported feeling lonely in an October 2020 study of social isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic conducted for the AARP Foundation and the United Health Foundation.

Many older LGBTQ people are estranged from their biological families so lack a traditional source of caregiving support that many older adults rely on. They are twice as likely to live alone and four times less likely to have children than average, according to SAGE, and often have experience of discrimination that can make them less likely to reach out to senior centers, meal programs and other support services.

As a result, they might not feel welcome in some areas of the country where “aging communities aren’t as receptive” to LGBTQ people, says Ronald Long, director of Elder Care Initiatives at Wells Fargo, which has teamed with SAGE on efforts to address financial stress in the older LGBTQ population.

“Such communities offer a layer of protection from the isolation that scammers often seek,” Long says. “But when you are put in a position of being an outcast, actually unaccepted, by the very folks who could keep an eye on a potential scam situation, you are more vulnerable.”

Older LGBTQ Americans might also not feel as though they can turn to the authorities to report fraud. Many in the community came of age in a time when homosexuality was illegal, Herndon says, “so law enforcement was not who you went to if there was a problem.”

And isolation is closely tied to loneliness, fueling a desire for connection that can lead many to seek out companionship on social media and dating apps, where scams flourish. “The scammers know that there’s an epidemic of loneliness and they’re exploiting that,” says Samuel Levine, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection.

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Financial insecurity

In a 2014 SAGE survey of single adults ages 45 to 75, about half of those who identified as LGBTQ said they’d need to continue to work beyond retirement age, compared to 27 percent of non-LGBTQ adults.

Women in same-sex relationships are at particular risk of financial hardship: Those ages 65 and older have nearly twice the poverty rate of older married opposite-sex couples, according to an in-depth report from MAP and another think tank, the Center for American Progress, on the financial status of LGBTQ women.

One big reason for such disparities: Until 2015, same-sex couples did not have a nationwide, constitutional right to marry, which is associated with greater financial stability (among other factors, it comes with tax and insurance benefits). It was another five years before the Supreme Court ruled that civil rights legislation protecting people from sex discrimination in the workplace applied to gay, lesbian and transgender workers.

Money problems can put someone at higher risk for fraud, Herndon says. For example, potential discrimination against LGBTQ Americans in the financial services industry could lead them to seek out riskier funding sources. “You can imagine that if you were denied a loan, you might resort to some other tactics to get a loan, which might have put you in front of a fraudster,” he says.

To help address this risk, SAGE worked with LifeCents, a company that develops digital financial-wellness tools, and the Wells Fargo Foundation to create SAGECents, a free app and website designed to boost older LGBTQ adults’ financial literacy and health.

With SAGECents, users can track their spending and access information on current scams, how to report them and where to find support if they are targeted by a criminal. 

Older LGBTQ people “oftentimes are convinced that authorities won’t believe them,” says Vincent, of SAGE. “Consequently, they feel like they have nowhere else to turn.”

But the FTC’s Levine emphasizes how important it is for LGBTQ scam victims to report these crimes.

“One of the points of Pride month is that we are more powerful if we are proud,” says Levine, who identifies as LGBTQ himself. “I would say the same thing about fraud. If we are open about what happens to us, we are more powerful to combat it.”

 

How to Avoid Romance Scams

 

The LGTBQ-focused dating platform Grindr offers users tips for avoiding romance scams, many of which are echoed by the FTC:

  • Don't create accounts for anyone but yourself. Some scammers will attempt to get you to create Grindr accounts for them, which they will use as scam accounts.
  • Don’t share information too quickly. Be cautious about sharing your contact info, especially if you are exchanging any kind of content (including chats) that you wouldn’t want others to see. Scammers can discover your identity from a phone number or social media and use that information to threaten you.
  • Don’t send money. Be wary of anyone who asks you to send money to them (or someone else) or asks you to pay in order to interact with them.
  • Don’t pay someone to destroy photos or conversations. There’s no guarantee they will. The FBI does not condone paying online extortion demands.
  • Stop communicating. If you suspect that someone romancing you online is a scammer, cut off contact immediately. Report suspected sextortion attempts to the FTC and the FBI, directly at a field office or online to the bureau’s Internet Crime Complaint Center. You can also call the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative’s crisis hotline at 844-878-2274 for help or advice.
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