10 financial scams targeting seniors and how to avoid them

By ClarkHoward.com

Do you have aging family members or friends? According to a MetLife survey, crimes against the elderly skyrocketed in the last year. Seniors lost $3 billion to criminals through home repair scams, investment scams, and other cons targeting older people.

Who criminals are targeting

Con artists are particularly fond of elderly widows. The scam is to find those who may be lonely or infirm, and slowly shower them with attention and small gifts in order to gain their confidence.

Elderly people are targets for criminals for a variety reasons, and as their family members and friends, it's our job to help protect them from potential scams.

How you can help protect older people in your life

If you have elderly friends or relatives, you need to stay involved in their lives. Be nosy! Visit them. To someone who is alone a lot, just your presence brings them joy. It may seem dull at times, but never forget, someday you will be in their shoes.

With families together during the holidays, it's a great time to check in on what's going on in a parent or other older family member or friend's life, including their finances.

Do you have siblings? Some families find it's a good plan to divide up responsibilities when you have elderly parents -- one kid takes them shopping, another entertains them, and a third handles money issues. Regardless of how it's handled, be aware and be present in the financial lives of your elders.
That can mean being a second signature on a checkbook, or an authorized person on a checking account. Know about the investments they have. Remember, be nosy! You don't want to find out your parents are destitute because you were looking the other way.

As you monitor your parent or other older person's financial life, it's important to be aware of some common scams and to talk to your loved ones about how they can avoid being scammed.

According to the National Council on Aging (NCOA), here are the top 10 financial scams that are wreaking havoc in the lives of seniors.

Top 10 financial scams targeting seniors

1. Medicare/health insurance fraud

PROBLEM: Scammers have targeted seniors for numerous ripoffs surrounding the Affordable Care Act and Medicare enrollment. Since every U.S. citizen over the age of 65 qualifies for Medicare benefits, seniors are an easy target for medical scams, because criminals don't have to do any research around their insurance provider. 

Many of these scams operate via door-to-door or over-the-phone solicitations by someone claiming to be a Medicare representative. Here are some ways to spot a medical scam targeting a senior:

  • Being told you need a new Medicare card and have to divulge your Social Security number.
  • Being told you need new supplemental policies.
  • Being asked to pay a $100 fee for help navigating the new Obamacare landscape.
SOLUTION: When in doubt, just hang up the phone or shut the door on the person trying to get money from you.

2. Counterfeit prescription drugs

PROBLEM: Many older people may be looking for cheaper drug alternatives as a way to save money on a fixed income. The problem is that scammers prey on this vulnerability of wanting to save.

The Internet is the most common way criminals operate these scams -- offering "better prices" on specialized medication, which can not only be fake, but also end up being harmful to the person if they take an unknown substance.

SOLUTION: Be very cautious when ordering medication online and make sure to talk to your loved ones about the dangers of doing so. Here are more tips about what to look for when buying medications online. Also, check out these 4 ways to save money on prescriptions.

3. Funeral & cemetery scams

PROBLEM: Funeral and cemetery scams have been around for years. The FBI warns about two main types that are targeted toward seniors:

1. Criminals will read obituaries and either call or attend the funeral service of someone they don't know just to take advantage of someone there who's grieving. The scammer will then claim the deceased had an outstanding debt with them in an effort to get money from relatives to "settle" that fake debt.

2. Unfortunately, there are dishonest funeral homes out there that prey on grieving families by capitalizing on their unfamiliarity with the cost of funeral services in order to get more money from them. How it often works is someone at the funeral home adds unnecessary charges by insisting on extra features, such as the most expensive casket.

SOLUTION: Do some research before agreeing to anything suggested by the funeral home. Also, if your elderly loved one has a friend or other family member pass away, make sure to check on them and monitor their finances to make sure they don't fall victim to a scam like this.

4. Fake anti-aging products

PROBLEM: If you watch a lot of late night TV, which seniors often do, you'll notice all the commercials about products that claim to be the perfect solution to signs of aging or other unwanted physical changes.

According to the NCOA, seniors often feel the need to look younger in order to keep up in social circles or to fill some other void in their life. This leads them to seek out new treatments, medications and other remedies -- making them vulnerable to scammers who capitalize on this demand. These scams operate in a variety of ways, including offering very expensive treatments that turn out to be harmful or very expensive homeopathic remedies that actually do nothing (except take your money).

SOLUTION: When monitoring your loved one's finances, look for purchases of these types of remedies or treatments, which you may also find when you visit their home. Talk to them about the dangers of these products, and also just increasing the frequency of your visits may help them avoid these situations.

5. Phone scams

PROBLEM: Scammers use several types of phone scams to prey on seniors. Here are a few to watch out for:

SOLUTION: Here are a few ways to avoid phone scams:

  • Never call back an unknown number.
  • Know the IRS will never contact you by phone or email, only by U.S. mail.

Read more: How to protect your elderly loved ones from being scammed

6. Internet fraud

PROBLEM: Microsoft has put out a special consumer alert to warn about bogus computer security engineers making cold calls to convince people their computers are at risk for a security threat.
The phonies offer a free security check over the phone in an effort to get you to give them remote access to your computer for a supposed diagnosis and fix. Once they have remote access, they will download software to your computer that basically allows them to steal money from your accounts.
A Microsoft survey conducted in the English-speaking world (this is not just limited to the United States) found that 15% of people have gotten a call from these scammers at one time or another.
Eight in 10 of those who allowed remote access of their computers had money stolen. One in five became identity theft victims. Finally, more than half of all people who allowed remote access got hit with viruses that fouled up their computers. Very often, the cost of repair was greater than the money stolen.
SOLUTION: Microsoft offers a few recommendations to stay out of harm's way. First, be suspicious of unsolicited calls from supposed computer security experts. Second, don't visit any sites or install software recommended by unsolicited callers.

BONUS TIP: Seniors often fall victim to a variety of Internet scams, including fake virus protection pop-ups and fake emails. Warn your loved one about the dangers of clicking on any unknown links or emails. Do not click on any link in any email you were not expecting. If there's a question and you think there's a legitimate message or notification intended for you, go directly to the official website of whatever business it is and check for any notifications there. Also, you can protect their computer bydownloading virus and malware protection software on it yourself.

Read more: Apple email scam is stealing people's information

7. Investment/timeshare schemes

PROBLEM: Buying a timeshare is bad enough of a ripoff. But imagine getting ripped off twice or three times by crooks promising to help you resell your timeshare!
The crooks typically ask for money upfront for advertising, title searches, and other administrative fees. You may even be told you'll get your money back if your timeshare isn't sold in 90 days. That's a big, fat lie. You won't get anything back except a lighter wallet.
SOLUTION: Here's the real truth. Anyone promising you more than a few pennies on the dollar of what you paid is lying. Remember, salespeople should receive commissions at the time of the sale, not a second before.

8. Homeowner/reverse mortgage scams

Homeowner scams

PROBLEM: Seniors who live alone in their own homes are cautioned to be wary of "woodchucks" -- fake home contractors who gain their confidence and then charge huge amounts of money for unnecessary work.
These con men usually have some level of handyman skills and will start the relationship by offering to do a benign job such as gutter cleaning. But after they finish that job, they'll find other imaginary problems -- such as a roof or chimney repair -- and convince seniors to fork over thousands of dollars.
Woodchucks also love to target people who have failing memories. In some of their most disgusting offenses, they'll even drive old women to banks and get them to cash bogus checks before disappearing with the funds.
Police expect the woodchuck phenomenon to worsen. After all, we're an aging population and we no longer live geographically close to our families as we did a few generations ago.
SOLUTION: Pick up the phone and call your aging relatives -- or go visit them -- to make sure they're not falling prey to woodchucks. Be nosy if you're worried that their money may be in danger. With a parent, there'll be a natural inclination for them to not want to talk to you about money. But you've got to be pushy.

Mortgage/reverse mortgage scams

PROBLEM: According to the NCOA, scammers are preying on senior homeowners by offering a property assessment on the value of their home. They find the public information on the home, and then send the homeowner an official looking letter that offers to assess the value of the home for a fee. This is of course just a ruse to get that "fee" money.

As reverse mortgages have increased in popularity, scammers are taking advantage of seniors with fake offers. According to the NCOA, "unsecured reverse mortgages can lead property owners to lose their homes when the perpetrators offer money or a free house somewhere else in exchange for the title to the property."

SOLUTION: Monitor all of your loved one's important financial and asset information closely. If you are worried they could fall victim to a scam like this, you may need to take control of their power to make decisions involving their finances, investments, assets etc.

Read more: Pros and cons of reverse mortgages for seniors

9. Sweepstakes & lottery scams

PROBLEM: Seniors get a call saying they've won a lottery or sweepstakes of some kind, but they need to either pay money or divulge sensitive account information to claim the winnings.
With the lottery scams, a senior's savings are not eroded all at once. Once they take the bait and send some money in, they're put on the sucker list. That marks them to receive future calls or solicitations about other alleged lottery winnings. It's known as a "reload scam," and it can play out in areas other than just fake lottery winnings.

Another way these scams unfold is a criminal will send the person a fake check to deposit, and during the period it takes for the check to get rejected, the scammer collects money from the senior for "fees" or "taxes" on the supposed prize. Then they're out of that money, and of course, no money is deposited from that fake check.

SOLUTION: Warn your loved ones about these scams and that they should NEVER hand over money for a "prize" or to anyone that they (or you) do not know.

10. The grandparent scam

PROBLEM: Crooks call senior citizens and impersonate their adult grandchildren in order to hit them up for money. Here's how a typical conversation might go:
The phone rings and the senior picks up...
Scamster: (in a low tone) Grandma?
Senior: Is that you, Jimmy?
Scamster: Yes, it's me and I'm in trouble. I'm in jail. I need you to wire money so I can get out.
The typical take on this scam is anywhere between $3,000 and $4,000. There's even a "reload" on this one. If the scamster gets money, they'll have another person call up impersonating a police officer and ask for additional funds in order for their grandchild to be released. They claim there are extra charges for property damage. Once the money is taken, you'll never see it again.
SOLUTION: Never give out personal info over the phone or send money to unknown sources through a wire service.