Scamming the Elderly: Keeping Loved Ones Safe From Predatory Practices

Senior citizens can be easy targets for scammers. The COVID-19 pandemic has left them even more vulnerable. Over the last 2 years, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has seen an uptick in the number of schemes targeting older adults.1

Con artists may single out older people because they think they have lots of extra money. But low-income seniors are at risk, too. Sometimes the perpetrator is a stranger. Other times, it can be a close family member or friend.2

How can you best protect your loved ones from such predatory acts? Understanding how scammers take advantage of older people is the first step.

Potential scamming techniques

One of the most common crimes against seniors is identity theft. Identity thieves go about this in a couple of ways.1

For example, they may pose as a Medicare representative. Every person in this country over 65 is eligible for Medicare. Scammers can do a little research to get people's information, then use that information fraudulently.1

Con artists may also take advantage of older people through telemarketing ploys. Deals made over the phone are difficult to trace. You may have heard in the news about Jennifer Shah from Real Housewives of Salt Lake City doing this.2

The internet opens up another avenue to exploit an older person. Email phishing is one method. Scammers often pretend to be sending emails from reputable companies, such as banks or well-recognized companies. The person getting the email can be fooled into sharing sensitive information, for example:1,2

  • Credit card numbers
  • Insurance information
  • Social Security number
  • Medical records

After an imposter obtains a senior's personal information, they can use it to their advantage. They may also share or sell the information to other scammers.2

Taking advantage of grief and fear

Another common approach to tricking seniors is taking advantage of stressful times in their lives. For example, a scammer may scour the obituaries. They then contact the deceased person's spouse, claiming that the person who died owes a debt. The scammer pressures the grieving spouse to settle the debt quickly.2

Funeral homes and cemeteries might also try to upsell seniors on burial needs.2

Another way to scam older adults is to make fake claims about health products. Scammers will claim their product fights aging or cures an illness. The FTC has seen an increased number of such cases during the COVID-19 pandemic. There have been several unfounded claims about certain products' ability to cure or prevent the virus.1,2

While it is difficult to imagine, some scammers will prey on the hearts of seniors to try to make money. Someone will pose as the senior's grandchild and claim to be in financial trouble. To avoid discovery, the imposter will beg the senior not to tell their parents.1

Protecting seniors from fraud

Knowing these tactics can help seniors, and their loved ones avoid fraud. It also is essential to report con artists. One study showed that fewer than 1 out of 20 fraud victims complain or file a report to a Better Business Bureau or government agency.1

Having conversations about the topic is important, too. To help families with this, the FTC has created a program called "Pass It On." The program gives seniors resources to share with their friends and loved ones. These resources help everyone in a senior's circle remain vigilant about fraudulent activities.1

Other government organizations have acted, too. In 2017, the federal government passed the Elder Abuse Prevention and Prosecution Act. Officials designed this law to prosecute elder abuse crimes and enforce related laws. It also calls for the Department of Justice to help local governments prevent the exploitation of seniors.3

United States versus Jennifer Shaw

In January 2023, Jennifer Shah from Real Housewives of Salt Lake City was sentenced for her role in large-scale wire fraud. For almost 10 years, she led a telemarketing con ring. The purpose was to defraud elderly, vulnerable people.4-6

The con targeted and repeatedly defrauded specific victims to the point of bankruptcy. Some maxed out their credit cards by buying fake services. They were told these services would bring them money.4-6

Shah and her team's hustle was selling their victims services they never received. Often the services were ones the victims did not even need. For example, Shah and her group would offer website design to people who did not own a computer.4-6

Shah sold the names of likely targets to other members of her con ring. She knew her actions would defraud the victims. Shah attempted to hide a paper and electronic trail from connecting her to the con.4-6

Shaw was found guilty of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and conspiracy to commit money laundering. She is serving a 6.5-year prison sentence. She must also give up or repay more than 13 million dollars worth of property.4-6

If you suspect a senior in your life is the victim of a predatory act, ask questions and help them take action. Has this happened to anyone you know? Tell us about your experience in the comments below, or share your story with the community.

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: January 2023

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