10 of the Con Artists' Favorite Ways to Scam the Elderly


The older we get, the more attractive we become -- to fraudsters. Preying on those breakdowns that come with age, from hearing loss to loneliness, criminals tailor special scams with seniors in mind. Financial crimes against the elderly are rampant. Bank accounts are being quietly wiped out. Afraid, betrayed, blaming themselves for being fooled -- believe me, I've seen it -- victims hesitate to call the cops. For most of us, these crimes are scroll-over territory because seniors and what happens to them aren't sexy. Members of the elderly crowd having their purses snatched by phony plumbers or being convinced to buy shares in companies that don't exist? We don't want to go there. Fraudsters do. Maybe one of them is ringing your mother's doorbell right now.

Here are ten common scams that target seniors.

1. "You've Already Won…."

Official-looking documents designed to trick recipients into thinking they've won money are worded carefully so as to stay legal. These documents hide crucial information (e.g., the fact that they're not really prize announcements) in tiny italic type -- because reading italics is much harder for people with low vision than reading upright fonts. Following "instructions," recipients send checks that they believe are processing fees to faraway post-office boxes. The amounts are small -- from $5 to $50 --but they add up, given that individual scammers typically operate several fake-sweepstakes scams simultaneously. Addresses of those who send checks are sold to other scammers; more sweepstakes letters pour in. "It plays on the emotions," says Melodye Kleinman of the National Telemarketing Victim Call Center. In one recent case NTVCC handled, an 88-year-old widow spent over $60,000 on fake sweepstakes in just two years.

2. Talk to Me

Seniors are prime targets for sleazy telemarketers "because they're usually home during the day when the calls come in," Kleinman says. "They're lonely, so they'll talk" to friendly-sounding strangers who call and ask them questions about themselves, then tell them they've won prizes or offer "great deals" on nonexistent merchandise, services, or financial plans. In order to claim these nonexistent prizes or deals -- and to cover alleged postage and handling or first-installment fees -- victims divulge their credit-card and bank-account numbers. "We want to convince people just to hang up" when strangers call, Kleinman says. "But there's a human tendency to share information about yourself if someone asks for it in a certain way."

3. Spectral Startups

This is telemarketing mixed with the long con, a sophisticated process that comprises half of NTVCC's cases. Calling seniors whom they suspect are fairly well-off -- especially seniors who were or are businesspeople --scammers proffer bogus investment opportunities. "The callers say, 'I've got a great deal for you; we can move on it really fast,'" Kleinman says. "They say, 'If you had invested in Microsoft, think how rich you'd be now. Well, this is a similar opportunity, so let's get started. Can I have your $50,000 right now?'" Some victims fork it over. Some ask for evidence -- and are sent authentic-looking materials detailing nonexistent projects and companies. Many involve films, Kleinman says: "They promise that you'll get to walk down the red carpet with big stars." In one recent case, a man with dementia "invested" in a nonexistent series of religious films for children. NTVCC called in the FBI; the scammer was arrested and convicted.

4. Engine Trouble

Pulling into a parking space, a senior exits his or her car and enters a store. The scammer, who has been waiting and watching specifically for elderly drivers, swiftly approaches the car after its owner is out of sight and disables it, typically by detaching a spark-plug wire. The scammer then waits -- nearby but not so nearby as to look suspicious -- for the senior to return. When the car doesn't start, the scammer poses as a helpful passerby, fixes it, then demands a large cash reward. "They literally get into the car and go to the bank with the elderly person," says economic-crime detective Joe Roubicek, who works with the Florida State Attorney's office and covers such scams at his website and in his book, Financial Abuse of the Elderly (Ruby House, 2008).

5. I.O.U.

Seniors are easily persuaded to loan money to relatives, employees, neighbors, and "friends" who will never pay them back.Seniors loan money because they're lonely and believe the loan will buy companionship. They do it because they're afraid of what the loanee will do if they refuse. They do it because they tell themselves: It's not so much. I'm not using it for anything else. I won't even notice its absence. So-and-so needs it more than I do right now. They do it because they're afraid of seeming selfish or cheap if they don't. They do it because they believe the loanee's (usually false) reason for requesting it. But receiving such loans often counts as a crime, Roubicek says. "Lack of capacity" -- physical and/or mental --"is assumed to be lack of consent in criminal law, whether it be personal loans, sweepstakes fraud, or selling a $1,200 refrigerator to a 96-year-old man."

6. Doom on the Doorstep

A common gambit finds scammers cruising neighborhoods in small groups. Targeting seniors who live alone, they ring doorbells. Greeting the senior, Roubicek says, "they claim they've been sent by the local gas or water company to check or fix something." To aid the scam, scammers often wear ersatz uniforms. Invited in by the credulous senior, two scammers pretend to do the checkup or repair while another distracts the senior with friendly conversation or a fake questionnaire as a fourth cruises the home stealing valuables. Sometimes these scammers also unlock back doors or windows to facilitate future burglaries. Some of these scammers "accidentally" spill liquids such as cleaning fluids on seniors' hands, slipping off the seniors' jewelry while "gallantly" wiping their hands clean, Roubicek says.

7. Readymade Repairs

Yet another doorstep scam entails "gardeners" or "handymen" offering to do "necessary" repair work --on cracked driveways, say, or dangling half-broken tree limbs. (As part of this scam, they have often secretly perpetrated this damage themselves.) Claiming that these conditions, if unrepaired, will damage the homes or violate city codes, these scammers scare seniors into hiring them on the spot. Some demand to be paid in advance for labor plus materials: Once paid, they drive off -- allegedly to buy those materials -- but never return. Some actually do the work but without specifying a fee beforehand. Once finished, they demand exorbitant fees, threatening to call the cops if the victim doesn't pay. These scams too often end with lucrative trips to ATMs.

8. In the House

Granted unlimited access to seniors' bodies and homes, "caregivers top the list" of those who exploit the elderly, Roubicek says. Although caregiver agencies are required by law to do background checks on all potential employees, many don't bother. Roubicek says this kind of perp often has no criminal record, but simply can't resist the temptation to snatch unattended cash, clothes, credit cards, medications, checkbooks, jewelry, electronics, and personal information. "Once caught, these culprits rationalize their crimes, saying, 'The old lady wanted me to have this; she loves me,'" Roubicek says. Forgetful seniors face yet another scam when employees who have been paid claim that they haven't. Forgetting that they wrote the previous checks, the seniors write more.

9. For a Good Cause

Anyone can start a nonprofit organization, Roubicek says. The process requires merely a declaration that "it's for a cause -- any cause." Scammers often choose names for their fake nonprofits that can easily be mistaken for the names of well-known real nonprofits. Choosing "causes" such as health and children's welfare that appeal to seniors, they solicit "donations" via mass mailings and telemarketing. Roubicek cites one such scammer whose telemarketing teams target seniors in areas where police officers have recently been killed in the line of duty. These seniors' are told that their "donations" will help the dead cops' kids. "And while the law says that a nonprofit has to put some money toward the cause every year, it doesn't say how much." Kleinman has seen a large influx lately of fake green nonprofits: "They say they're doing alternative energy, building windmill farms and solar farms in the desert." They're not.

10. And You Are … ?

Personal information can be stolen from all of us in a distressingly wide variety of ways: via our mailboxes, wallets, purchases, Internet activities, medical records, and trash and recycling bins. In terms of identification theft, seniors are easy prey, whether it's because they're forgetful, because they're incapacitated, because they're not Internet-savvy, because they're trusting, and/or because their belongings are often within prowling-range of employees, relatives and even strangers. To their horror and often too late, they learn that their names and Social Security Numbers have been used to start credit accounts and facilitate shopping sprees, vacations, educations and addictions. Savvy scammers "can clean out their victims' bank accounts online," Roubicek laments, "although these days the banks are becoming a little more restrictive.

Bonus: 11. The Classic Con

Meeting seniors anywhere -- at religious institutions, community centers, retirement homes, the beach or the supermarket -- old-fashioned classic con artists envision red bullseyes shimmering on the faces of their prey. "The first thing they do is become your new best friend," Kleinman says. "They ask questions to see where your Achilles heel is: Oh, you're a widow. Oh, you love your grandchildren. Oh, your relatives all live out of state. And you're so lonely that you think: Yeah, I'll talk to this person about my IRA. And I'll listen when he says he needs a loan, or when he says he's with Goldman Sachs and has a good deal for me that will help me fund my grandchildren's education and retire more comfortably. And of course he wouldn't scam me, because he's a member of my church."

Both Kleinman and Roubicek recommend vigilance and a certain amount of what feels like rudeness.

"When strangers call, we want people to just hang up," Kleinman says. "When strangers come to the door, don't open it."

"I've seen heartbreaking crimes against the elderly," Roubicek says, "but it hasn't been prioritized by the government," mainly because of society's reluctance to see seniors as disabled by virtue of just being old.

"Aging is a disabling process. In one way or another, these people are disabled, and therefore more vulnerable, and it's okay to say so. I think we'd probably be more protective of the elderly if we could just recognize that."

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