How to Avoid An Online Scam

Older adults are the target for many financial scams. Learn how to protect yourself.
May 6, 2024
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Key Points
  • Although cognitive impairment is a risk factor for getting scammed, age-associated financial vulnerability can occur without it, and everyone should be vigilant
  • Get familiar with the FTC's tips for spotting a scam, including being pressured to act immediately, pretending to be from an organization that you know, and telling you to pay in a specific way
  • To avoid a scam, take a 48 hour "cooling off" period, have a go-to person look at emails or inquiries before sending sensitive info, filter unwanted calls and text messages, and never give personal information in response to a request that you didn’t expect
Table of Contents

All Older Adults Are Targets

Older adults are a prime target for scammers, particularly as it relates to financial scams. There are many reasons why this is the case: wealth is typically concentrated, technological literacy is lower than younger generations, and circumstances like social isolation and potential cognitive impairment make older adults easier targets.

Many assume that an older adult who gets scammed has cognitive impairment, but this is often not the case: new research shows that although mild cognitive impairment is a risk factor, age-associated financial vulnerability can occur without any measurable cognitive impairment, dementing illness or other neurodegenerative diagnosis.

Signs Your Loved One Might Be Susceptible

Oftentimes, scams are caught by the concerned loved ones of an older adult. The biggest indicator that someone may be getting scammed is seeing that the patterns of their decisions are inconsistent with their past behavior, and may reduce the quality of their life.

Inconsistency is important. A lifelong risk-taker making large bets well into their 90’s is much different than someone who has been very financially conservative suddenly moving all of their assets into a high-risk investment.

How to Spot a Scam

The FTC has helpful tips on how to spot and avoid a scam, including:

  • Scammers pretend to be from an organization you know: Scammers often pretend to be contacting you on behalf of the government. They might use a real name, like the Social Security Administration, the IRS, or Medicare, or make up a name that sounds official. Some pretend to be from a business you know, like a utility company, a tech company, or even a charity asking for donations. They use technology to change the phone number that appears on your caller ID. So the name and number you see might not be real.
  • Scammers say there’s a problem or a prize: They might say you’re in trouble with the government, owe money, or someone in your family had an emergency. Some scammers say there’s a problem with one of your accounts and that you need to verify some information. Others will lie and say you won money in a lottery or sweepstakes but have to pay a fee to get it.
  • Scammers pressure you to act immediately: Scammers want you to act before you have time to think. If you’re on the phone, they might tell you not to hang up so you can’t check out their story. They might threaten to arrest you, sue you, take away your driver’s or business license, or deport you. They might say your computer is about to be corrupted.
  • Scammers tell you to pay in a specific way: They often insist that you pay by sending money through a money transfer company or by putting money on a gift card and then giving them the number on the back. Some will send you a check (that will later turn out to be fake), tell you to deposit it, and then send them money.

How to Avoid a Scam

  • Have a go-to to talk through before making a decision: Before making any financial decisions outside of your normal course of action, find a trusted family member, friend, or financial advisor that you discuss the decision with to get their thoughts.
  • Take a 48 hour “cooling off” period: Before making a big financial decision or signing a document, take at least 48 hours to think it through.
  • Block unknown callers and filter unwanted text messages: Here is Apple’s guide on detecting and blocking spam callers, and a guide on filtering unwanted text messages.
  • Don’t open email attachments or click links in an email unless you’ve checked the email of the sender and know them: This goes for businesses that email you as well. If you’re in doubt, forward it to a person you trust to have them assess.
  • Don’t give your personal or financial information in response to a request that you didn’t expect: Legitimate organizations won’t call, email, or text to ask for your personal information, like your Social Security, bank account, or credit card numbers.
  • If you get an email or text message from a company you do business with and you think it’s real, it’s still best not to click on any links. Instead, contact them using a website you know is trustworthy. Or look up their phone number. Don’t call a number they gave you or the number from your caller ID.

Digital Password Management

One of the most critical keys to avoiding a financial scam is to have a digital password manager. While many older adults write passwords down using pen and paper, this method is both not secure and makes it much more challenging to change passwords.

Instead, we recommend getting a digital password manager. For older adults, we recommend Easeenet ($59.50/year).  For a one-time $30 fee, Easeenet will work with an older adult to set their password management up and walk them through how to use the platform.

For more tech-savvy users, we recommend LastPass ($3/month).

Whichever service you choose, make sure that a trusted loved one like a spouse or a child has a written copy of your sign-in information so that they can access it if you need assistance.

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