Scammers looking to make a quick buck are nothing new. As long as there have been people, there have been other people trying to take advantage of them! But the 21st century is a brave new world when it comes to scamming: fraudsters have the power of the internet at their fingertips, and they’ve gotten very, very good at finding ways to take your hard-earned money. Sure, there are still some old-fashioned scammers out there that come to your door, send you snail mail, or call you on the phone, but they seem almost quaint now compared to the sophistication of online scammers.
And these online scammers, unfortunately, often target older adults, thinking that people in your demographic are easy targets – but you can prove them wrong! Armed with a little bit of knowledge about what kind of internet scams are out there, and how to avoid them, you can stay safe on the internet, and get back to chatting and shopping without fear.
Seniors and Internet Scams by the Numbers
Scammers don’t discriminate. They’ll target anyone of any race, gender, or age, but the unfortunate truth is that they do target older adults more often than they do any other group. And things are only getting worse: the last two years have seen our dependence on technology increase, and so we’ve also seen an increase in online scams.
According to “official” figures from the FBI, their Internet Crime Complaint Center received a total of 791,790 complaints with reported losses exceeding $4.1 billion. Based on the information provided in the complaints, approximately 28% of total fraud losses were sustained by victims over the age of 60, resulting in approximately $1 billion in losses to seniors. This represents an increase of approximately $300 million in losses reported in 2020 versus what was reported by victims over 60 in 2019.
But other sources tell a different story. According to an estimate by the American Journal of Public Health, a full 5% of the elderly population (which equates to around 2-3 million people) are victims of some sort of scam every year. “What’s worse, it’s very likely an underestimate,” said David Brune, a professor at the University of Toronto, who points out that a huge amount of internet scams probably go unreported. In fact, it’s more likely that seniors lose $3 billion each year to scams, with some even estimating that a whopping $36 billion is lost by seniors every year.
Whatever the real numbers, it’s clear that online scams targeting older adults are a huge problem, and we all need to be aware of what’s out there, so we can help combat it.
Common Online Scams
As we pointed out above, scammers target older adults simply because they can, and because they think that seniors are more trusting, more financially stable, lonelier, and less internet savvy than other targets. But as we also pointed out, you don’t have to fall prey to online scams, you just need to know what to look out for. In addition, remember that scammers rely on seniors being embarrassed that they’ve been taken for a ride, and think they won’t report what’s happened to them, so if you are scammed be sure to report it! But hopefully, it won’t come to that, if you are aware of the following common online scams.
Online Romance Scams
We mentioned earlier that scammers target older adults because they think your age group is prone to loneliness, and this type of scam preys on that assumption. Fraudsters will set up accounts on online dating sites or social media platforms, and try to connect with you, looking especially for older adults who have lost a spouse or who are isolated from other family members. Once you’ve been chatting for a while, and they have gained your trust, they might mention money problems, an emergency that they need help with, or even introduce you to some sort of investment opportunity that they claim you could benefit from.
Whatever the case, they will ask for money – and there have been cases of sweetheart scammers draining seniors’ entire bank accounts. This is not only one of the most lucrative types of scam, it’s also one of the most common: “romance fraud” crimes resulted in $281,134,006 total in victim losses, and were the majority of complaints from seniors aged 60 and over received by the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center. From January 1 to July 31, 2021, the center reported receiving more than 1,800 complaints related to online romance scams, resulting in losses of approximately $133,400,000. And again, those are only the cases we know about, so this is something you should absolutely be wary of when trying to meet people online!
Social Media Advertising Scams
The next two types of scams make up the second most common types of online scams that older adults fall prey to: scams involving false advertising and online shopping. Just as many of us took to the internet during the pandemic to meet people, many of us also spent more time scrolling through social media, and were more open to shopping online, a combination that led to a lot more scamming. How? Scammers often put advertisements for products on social media, but when you order the product, they will not deliver it, will send something that doesn’t look anything like the product you ordered, or even steal your information.
According to an FBI report, “The combination of online shopping and social media creates easy venues for scammers to post false advertisements. Many victims report ordering items from links advertised on social media and either receiving nothing at all or receiving something completely unlike the advertised item.” Online shopping can be a life-saver (or just kind of fun!), but it’s best to only buy from reputable sites that you know. Which brings us to another type of online shopping/false advertising scam…
Health and Beauty Products Scams
Scammers think they know what seniors want: cheap prescription medications and anti-aging products. That means you have to be very wary of any of these types of products being advertised online, since scams involving counterfeit health and beauty products have become much more frequent since the start of the pandemic. In fact, elderly victims filed more than 14,000 complaints about nonpayment/non-delivery cases for a total loss of around $40 million in 2020, which was double the number of complaints about the same type of crime in 2019 or 2018.
What to be on the lookout for? Advertisements or emails touting prescription drugs that work just as well, but are cheaper, than the ones you’re paying for now. These drugs could be counterfeit, which can be dangerous, or they might not even exist – scammers might simply be trying to get your insurance information or credit card number. Also, be wary of advertisements or emails offering Botox treatments or other anti-aging products: again, you could end up purchasing either something that doesn’t exist, or could even be harmful to your health.
Technical Support Scams
The third most common type of internet scam targeting seniors is those involving fake offers of technical support. You might get a pop-up message on your computer, telling you your account is compromised, or you have a virus, and that you need to contact a technical support team, or click on a link to resolve the issue. As the FBI points out in their report, In these schemes, a criminal poses “as support or service representatives offering to resolve such issues as a compromised email or bank account, a virus on a computer, or a software license renewal.”
The FBI points out that this has become a big problem: in fact, in 2020, the Internet Crime Complaint Center saw a huge leap in the number of complaints about these crimes and the amount lost. Victims aged 60 and older were defrauded $116,415,126 from these types of online scams in 2020, compared with 2019, when they resulted in a loss of $38,410 for the same age group. The bottom line: companies won’t contact you about technical support, you have to contact them, so never ever engage with these types of requests.
Some online scams will attempt to convince you that you’ve won a prize, maybe because you’ve helped the website hit a milestone, or even just that you’re a random lucky winner. So how can something that’s supposedly free be a scam? You just have to remember that nothing on the internet is ever free! Fraudsters perpetrating sweepstakes scams will tell you you’ve won something, but you will have to give them your personal information to claim your “free” prize, or give your credit card information and pay a fee to have it sent or transferred to you. All of this should be a red flag – in fact, it’s always best to ignore any bright, loud, flashing pop-ups telling you you’ve won a prize that you didn’t even sign up for!
Again, it’s important to remember that nothing on the internet is ever free; it’s also important to remember that if something on the internet looks too good to be true, it probably is. Scammers might advertise “free” vacations, or deals on vacations to popular destinations that are so good you just can’t pass them up. But these “deals” will often require that you place a down payment quickly, since the offer is only for a “limited time,” and they are often advertised by fraudsters who either don’t own the property, or who are advertising a property that doesn’t even exist. You should always read the reviews of a property before booking, and if you want to book through a third-party online, stick with reputable sites.
Avoid Getting Scammed!
Knowing is definitely more than half the battle when it comes to online scams, but there are some steps you can take to stay safe when surfing. Keep the following in mind:
- No government agency, internet service provider, tech company, bank, etc will notify you through email or on a website that you owe them money.
- If a deal on a vacation, prescription drug, or something else seems too good to be true, it probably is. Perform more research on the company providing the deal.
- Verify, verify, verify: always follow up before you take action. For example, if you get a message from someone claiming to be with your bank, contact your bank directly to see if they are really trying to reach you.
- If you’re unsure about a purchase or a request for information, don’t be afraid to ask a trusted family member or friend for their advice on what action you should take.
- The FBI suggests you contact your doctor before committing to any health procedure or treatment that you aren’t using your insurance for.
- Don’t know them? Don’t do business with them. Avoid clicking on links in emails from unknown sources, or buying products from unknown companies, no matter how enticing their social media ads are.
- It can be uncomfortable, or even painful, to break off a relationship with someone you’ve been chatting with online, but if they begin to ask for money, you should end things as quickly as possible.
- Always be wary of “limited time” deals that are ending in the next few minutes – don’t give in to impulse buying scams!
How to Report Internet Scams
It’s an unfortunate fact that more than 80% of internet scams go unreported – not only because the victim doesn’t get justice when these crimes go unreported, but also because reporting them is the only way to stop them. If you’ve been the victim of a scam, you can report it to:
- FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center
- Federal Trade Commission (FTC): This government agency looks into telemarketing and phishing scams
- Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC): If you suspect you’ve been scammed by an investment scheme, you can contact the SEC
- Social Security Administration: The SSA is a great place to report potential scams that involve your social security number or funds
- Better Business Bureau: If you feel a business is scamming you online, report it to the Better Business Bureau
- Your bank: If you get scammed out of money, all hope is not lost – speak to your bank, and you might be able to recoup your money
There are a whole lot of unscrupulous people out there, looking to take advantage of the whole lot of us out there shopping, chatting, and surfing online. But you know what? We can be ready for them! Armed with the knowledge above, you can avoid the most common scams targeting older adults online, and thwart all of those fraudsters. Just remember, though, if the worst does happen, it’s not your fault – but you do need to report it, so you can hopefully get back what you’ve lost AND make sure it doesn’t happen to anyone else!