Over the summer of 2023, Daniel Goldstein’s 86-year-old mom got an email that looked like it was from her bank. She was alarmed because she had not spent the money it mentioned, so she called a help number on the email. The person on the other end of the line asked for her bank account information and made her believe she would get her money back. Instead, she lost $600 to a scammer.
Consumers of all ages were scammed out of $8.8 billion in 2022. And older adults lost the most money compared to other age groups, according to the Federal Trade Commission.
While everyone wants to protect their parents and grandparents from scammers, sometimes these conversations can be complicated to navigate.
“We encourage people to think in multigenerational approaches. Everyone is getting scammed, it’s just a different way that scammers go after you,” said Genevieve Waterman from the National Council on Aging.
From having a lot of empathy to knowing how to report a scam, experts shared their recommendations for talking about scams:
KNOW WHICH SCAMS COMMONLY TARGET OLDER PEOPLE
Knowing which scams are most commonly used to target older people can help. Two of the most common are the “grandparent” scam and romance scams, said Kathy Stokes, director of fraud prevention at AARP.
The grandparent scam is when someone gets a phone call from a person impersonating a grandchild and asking for money to get them out of trouble. The first step to avoid this is to call other family members before taking any action, the FTC recommends.
When it comes to romance scams, the FTC reported that people lost $1.3 billion in 2022. Scammers usually contact people through social media and then move the conversation to other messaging apps such as WhatsApp or Google Chat.
“A lot of older adults are now going into the online dating world, they’re making a lot of online conversations, having a lot of dates, but that leads them to scammers who are then convincing them to give them money and send it overseas,” Waterman said.
What starts as a simple conversation turns into a sudden romantic connection. But then the person asks for money because something happened in their lives and they need help. According to the FTC, common lies by scammers include “I or someone close to me is sick, hurt, or in jail” and “I can teach you how to invest.”
Other common scams are investment scams, tech support scams, and impersonation scams. You can read more about these on the FTC’s website.
HAVE CONSTANT CONVERSATIONS ABOUT SCAMS
One of the best ways to raise awareness about scams is to talk to each other about them. To keep your older family members safe, Waterman recommends that families talk about scams more often in their day-to-day lives.
“I love the idea of sitting around the table and talking about (scams) and making it more common,” Waterman said.
Goldstein said his mom knows how to use technology fairly well and they have had many conversations about email scams. However, she had never encountered the type of scam she was targeted by over the summer.
Because she felt a sense of urgency, she did not contact her son before calling the scammer. Goldstein believes that could have prevented her from losing money.
It is a common practice for scammers to make victims feel like they need to act right away, which makes them more vulnerable to falling for a story that might not seem plausible if they were not under pressure. If you’re having a conversation about scams with your family members, it is important to highlight the rushing aspect of scam practices.
INFORM, DO NOT IMPOSE
When you are navigating complicated conversations, it is better to take an informative approach rather than an authoritative tone. Because your parents or grandparents have a lot of expertise in other life topics, if you approach a conversation by imposing your ideas, it might not have the best effect.
When Stokes has conversations with her mom about scams, she approaches the conversation by saying that she heard about a new type of scam and asks questions such as “What do you think about this?” instead of using language like “Hey mom, there’s this scam, don’t fall for it.”
Waterman also recommends that you have conversations as a family, including younger members of your family, and make sure you make it clear that scams target everyone regardless of age.
“It’s about staying vigilant together as a family unit and not to challenge that older adult but just to explain that (scams) are becoming more sophisticated,” Waterman said.
If you are looking for guides to avoid scams for older adults, you can find a variety of them on the National Council on Aging’s website.
BE EMPATHETIC IF THEY FALL FOR A SCAM
If your family member has already lost money to a scam, Stokes recommends that you approach the conversation with a lot of empathy.
“We tend to blame the victim,” Stokes said. “When you are faced with another adult in your life who has experienced a scam loss, understand that it’s a crime.”
Stokes encourages people to think about scammers as organized groups with many resources, rather than a random person calling from their mom’s basement. Stokes says that people should think of these crimes at the same level as others and therefore have empathy for the victims.
DISCUSS A PLAN IN CASE THEY ENCOUNTER A SCAMMER
A few days after the scam took place, Goldstein’s mom told him about it.
“She was really unhappy and I’m like ‘Mom, why didn’t you call me?'” said Goldstein, who felt frustrated by the situation.
Part of Goldstein’s frustration came from the fact that he had a system with his mom where she would call him if she ever felt like something was wrong. However, he also felt bad for his mom because she was embarrassed that she was a victim.
While being online is now part of most people’s lives, older adults have a harder time adapting to some aspects of the internet, which can make them more vulnerable, Waterman said.
“Older adults have been thrown into the virtual world during COVID without any digital literacy training or navigation in general,” Waterman said.
To combat the anxiety and provide information about scams, the AARP has a Fraud Watch Network Helpline. This helpline guides people worried about being scammed or emotional support for those who have experienced fraud.
TEACH FAMILY MEMBERS HOW TO REPORT A SCAM
If you or a family member is a victim of a scam, it is good practice to report it. You can report a scam on the FTC’s website.