Who is Targeting Seniors?
“Everyone and his puppy,” answers Neal O’Farrell, Executive Director of the Identity Theft Council. O’Farrell spoke to Safety.com about the landscape of fraud and his top-level experience, including personal interviews with thieves in prison and in the Witness Protection Program.
You don’t need a big investment to be a cybercrook, he says, but it’s highly effective and profitable. Sophisticated efforts are perpetrated by syndicates around the globe, from small gangs, to Indian call centers, to the Mafia and Russian and Albanian organized crime. These aren’t petty criminals, but smart perpetrators who know how to manipulate people on a massive scale. They adapt their methods to changing times and technology.
What Makes Seniors Vulnerable to Identity Theft?
Younger generations are quick to chalk up scam susceptibility to memory loss and cognitive decline, but there’s more to it than that. With the advent of the internet, there are pronounced generational differences that fraudsters can exploit.
Consider this scenario: You’re an older adult, living alone, reliant on social security benefits. When the phone rings, you answer it – you grew up without Caller ID, and you’re more willing and comfortable to talk on the phone than texting, using a computer, or even checking voicemail. The caller says they’re from the Social Security Administration, and that you’ve made a mistake that puts your social security benefits at risk. You need to issue a payment now or your benefits will stop. Understandably, you go into fight or flight mode. Did you make a mistake? What if the benefits stop? Even if you don’t think that’s true, should you make the payoff just to make sure you can keep supporting yourself.
“One crook told me if he can get a senior on the phone, he has their money in his pocket,” says O’Farrell. “If you’re in your 70s or 80s and come from a generation of trust and you get a charming sweet-talker on the phone, you’ll more likely than not fall for something… there’s social engineering going on here.”
How Can Seniors Protect Themselves from Scams?
O’Farrell gives two main suggestions: One, stop doing things that make it easy for someone to take advantage of you, and two: remember to stop doing those things! The latter rule is a tongue-in-cheek nod to “senior moments,” but the former calls for a longer explanation.
To learn more, Safety.com reached out to Genevieve Waterman of the National Council on Aging (NCOA). Waterman leads the NCOA’s Economic Security Initiative and provides technical assistance to the Center for Benefits Access’ Benefits Enrollment Centers, which use person-centered strategies in a coordinated, community-wide approach to help low-income seniors access benefits.
Waterman echoed O’Farrell’s acknowledgment of manipulation: Fraudsters “use mind tricks to make it seem more real. They’ll prey on the heartstrings.” She also pointed on that victims of fraud often don’t want to talk about it, which can make the problem worse. “They think, ‘I’m an old wise person, why did I fall for this?” She also points out that psychological harm comes along with financial exploitation, and senior victims may be under duress not to divulge their victimhood, especially if a caretaker or family member is behind it. With the combined expertise of O’Farrell, Waterman and the NCOA, we’ve put together the following realistic and personal approaches to protecting seniors from financial exploitation.