The phone rings. The voice on the line says, "Hi, Grandma. I need help. Can you send money to get me out of trouble?"
This scenario may not seem believable to some savvy consumers, but it's having a major impact on seniors. In what's known as an "imposter scam" or a "grandparent scam," cons pretend to be a loved one in need, such as a grandchild. Eager to help, the seniors send money, often cash, in the mail. But it's all a scam. A new report from the Federal Trade Commission reports 25 percent of people over 70 who sent money to help a loved one, sent cash. In that age group, the median amount sent was $9,000.
The FTC urges seniors not to act right away, even if the story is dramatic. Instead, call the family member's phone to see whether he or she is actually in trouble.
"Seniors should be cautious and understand that things are not always as they seem," says David Canfield, owner of Senior Helpers in Central Long Island, a provider of in-home senior care to seniors across the U.S. "Oftentimes, when something appears 'too good to be true,' it is likely a scam."
He says red flags of a scam include asking for personal information like credit card and Social Security numbers, passwords or account logins.
Read on for a rundown of other cons targeting seniors.
Don't be reeled in by fake calls that might seem legitimate at first, such as calls purporting to help with Medicare. Scammers pretend to be health insurance representatives but they're really fishing or "phishing" for your personal information, such as your Social Security number or insurance ID.
"Once the scammer has this information, they will use it to bill Medicare for fake services and then keep the money," says Justin Lavelle, chief communications director of BeenVerified.com, the leading online background check platform, who advises hanging up on any callers that say they want to help you with a replacement card.
*Prescription for Trouble
Fake prescription drug scams are rampant on the internet.
"Individuals who are seeking lower prices for prescription drugs will often turn to the internet to find deals," says Lavelle. "Knowing this, the scammer will set up a website that advertises fake, cheap prescription drugs."
Seniors often fall for the scam, paying for the medicine and later discovering that the drugs they bought weren't what the doctor ordered. Sometimes they're fakes, which can create more health problems.
Avoid this scam by talking to your family or your doctor before ordering any medications online. They can verify the website and the medicine's authenticity.
"When checking your email, stay suspicious and on alert," says Brandon Schroth, digital manager for Gillware Data Recovery, a data recovery company and digital forensics lab. "Often times a fraudulent email will try to scare you by saying something was stolen or that you've won a prize."
He says instead of clicking on links in the email, go directly to the company's website and sign in how you normally would.
Be wary of emails with a blank "to" field as well as ones with bad spelling or incorrect grammar.
"Also, if the email begins with 'Hello' but doesn't actually state your name, that's another red flag," says Schroth, who recommends installing internet security, such as Norton AntiVirus or McAfee SiteAdvisor, on a senior's computer to help prevent damage in case a malicious email is opened by mistake.
*Dating Site Drama
If you're online dating, be careful of potential frauds.
"One major online dating scam targets older single women," says Lavelle. "The con artist builds up a rapport with the victim via an online dating website, and asks for increasingly large amounts of money to be wired to a foreign address."
Once the scammer has the money, he or she runs away with your cash.
Head off this fraud by paying close attention. Research the person before you meet face to face to ensure he or she doesn't have a criminal record. If the date won't meet you in person, it could be a scam. When chatting online, make sure your companion is real, not a robot.
"Mix up the conversation; see if the person continues to track with you," says Lavelle. "If they're unable to switch gears, it could be a robot responder giving predetermined responses."
Cons may call, email or mail info about collecting lottery winnings, if you pay a fee to claim the money. Seniors may think they're lotto winners, but think again.
"The scammer will then send a fake check to the victim to be deposited in their bank with the knowledge that it will take time for the bank to reject the check," says Lavelle. "The victim will wire the money for the prize only to later discover that the check was fraudulent."
Avoid the scam by not giving money to claim any prize.