Updated: Oct 6, 2022
By Debra King, LCSW
When you think about scams, what comes to mind?
Maybe it’s something flagrant, like the Nigerian prince scam. This is the one where you get an unsolicited email from someone claiming to be foreign royalty who promises you a share of a multimillion-dollar fortune in exchange for helping get the money out of the sender’s home country.
We’re all on to scams like this, right?
Millions of older adults are being scammed every year, not by people posing as royalty, but by everyday criminals inserting themselves into everyday lives. Here are just a few examples of scams my clients have seen.
The Mailbox Flag Scam
Do you still pay your bills by mail? If you do, you may think nothing of putting your check in an envelope and then putting the letter in your mailbox. You put the flag up and the mail carrier picks up your letter. Many of us have done this for decades. One of my client’s sons was paying his mom’s bills this way. A thief saw the red flag on the mailbox, stole the checks, and used the bank information to steal money from my client’s bank account.
The Amazon Scam
In this scam, someone calls claiming to be from Amazon. They say they have a package for you, but there’s money due on it. They ask you for personal information in order to confirm that the package is yours. A grandmother I know fell for this, even though she hadn’t placed any orders from Amazon. The criminal talked her into revealing her date of birth, her social security number, and her credit card number even though she didn’t shop on Amazon and wasn’t expecting a package. When her daughter asked her about the encounter, the grandmother said, “l was on the phone for an hour with Amazon. Apparently, I have a package coming.” They were building her trust in order to pick her pocket. The family had to work overtime to lock her accounts and freeze her credit in order to protect her.
One of my clients experienced a variation of this scam. The criminals told her to buy gift cards from big box retailers, then call them back and read them the codes from the back of those gift cards. She did as she was asked and lost nearly $20,000. By then she was too embarrassed to tell anyone. When her family found out, they reported it to the police, who said that no crime was committed because she voluntarily participated.
Publisher’s Clearinghouse Scams
There are a few scams that leverage the Publishers Clearing House name to line the pockets of criminals. In one scheme, criminals tell their victims that they have won a special “Senior Citizens” edition of the sweepstakes and that they will need to pay $1,000 fee to cover the taxes. This is a scam. Publishers Clearing House notifies winners in person with lots of fanfare and TV cameras.
In another variation, scammers call their potential victims to inform them that their winnings check is in the mail. When it arrives, the criminals say, the victim will need to deposit a check and then send some of the money back to the caller. What they don’t tell you is that the check will bounce, which means the victim is out the money they sent.
The Craigslist Scam
This scheme can ensnare anyone who posts things for sale on Craigslist or other public buy/sell/trade site. I have personal experience with this scam. Not long ago, I listed a bedroom suite for sale on Craigslist. Someone from Knoxville emailed me to say they would buy it, and they said they would come the next weekend to pick it up. I started to get suspicious when they postponed their trip. Next, they sent me a check for $1,500 more than what I was asking with a request that I send them the difference. That’s when I realized that I wasn’t interacting with a legitimate buyer. It was a scammer! They didn’t want my bedroom suite. They wanted me to cash that check and send them the difference. When I reported this to the police, they told me that this kind of scam happens all the time.
Warn Your Loved Ones
Scams can happen to anyone of any age, but it’s important to remember that older adults are especially vulnerable. If you’re looking after an elderly loved one, please share these tips with them.
Don’t answer the phone if you don’t recognize the number.
Calls from the IRS are always a scam. The IRS won’t call you at home.
Social Security won’t call unless you have an appointment.
Amazon won’t call you unless you actually ordered something, and you have a package.
You haven’t won the Publishers Clearinghouse sweepstakes unless the people show up on your doorstep with the big check and the balloons. Never pay to claim your winnings!
Don’t send money to anyone claiming to be your grandchild who needs you to bail them out of a bad situation. This “Grandparent Scam” is still going strong. Don’t fall for it!
When it comes to scams, it’s not always a Nigerian prince. Stay aware and stay safe!