Elder Fraud Expert Answers: Why Are Senior Citizens Targeted?


Imagine spending your whole life working hard, saving wisely and spending conscientiously—only to have your comfy “nest egg” taken away by unscrupulous scammers or even your own greedy relatives in your golden years.  Sad to say, this is a scenario that is far too common; up to 80% of scam victims are over 65, according to the U.S. Federal Trade Commission. A 2009 study by MetLife’s Mature Market Institute estimates that seniors lose approximately $2.6 billion per year to elder fraud, or what they call financial abuse, meaning fraud by outside scammers or theft by family members and acquaintances.

And this issue will take on even more importance in the years to come as the senior population in America grows.  According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there were 37.3 million people 65 and older in the United States as of 2006.  This group is expected to double in size within the next 25 years. By 2030, almost 1-out-of-5 Americans – some 72 million people- will be 65 years or older.

A scan of recent alerts from the Senior Journal shows a wide variety of areas that require constant vigilance:

By definition, Elder Fraud targets seniors, but why?

  • Senior citizens are most likely to have significant savings, to own their home and/or to have excellent credit—all very desirable to criminals.
  • People who grew up in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s were generally raised to be polite and trusting.  They are less likely to be suspicious of a nice salesperson, say no or hang up on pushy telemarketers.  There is even a study showing that we get more trusting as we age.  Through MRI testing, researchers at  the University of California, Los Angeles found that the area known as the anterior insula, which is associated with “gut feelings,” became more active in the younger subjects at the sight of an untrustworthy face. Older subjects, however, showed little to no activation in this area.
  • Seniors can be less comfortable with technology and inadvertently share information online or click on links that makes them vulnerable.
  • Criminals know that seniors are less likely to report a fraud.  This could be either because they don’t know who to report it to, are too ashamed at having been scammed, or don’t even know they have been scammed. Many are afraid to appear as if they have lost the ability to make sound decisions to their relatives, so they just keep it to themselves.
  • If an elderly victim does report the crime, scammers know that they often make poor witnesses.   The effect of age on memory combined with the amount of time that often passes between the crime, the realization, and actually acting on it makes it difficult for elderly victims to supply enough detailed information to investigators.
  • Senior citizens are more interested in and susceptible to products promising all sorts of wonderful results, from anti-aging creams to improved memory to medical cures.  In a world full of the miracles they’ve witnessed in their lifetimes, nothing seems too good to be true.  And if they can get a bargain on it, so much the better!

Elder Fraud Warning Signs:

  • You notice an excess amount of ATM or bank account withdrawals, perhaps even exceeding the daily maximum allowed on that account.
  • The senior is bouncing checks, which might indicate an unexpected loss of money.
  • There are debit transactions that don’t seem to make sense for an older adult.  Also, there may be debits that the person can’t remember or explain.
  • The older adult may be suddenly wiring large sums of money or writing large checks.
  • He or she may close a certificate of deposit, even though a large penalty would be paid for early withdrawal before that CD matured.
  • The bank is unable to speak directly with the older adult, despite repeated attempts to contact him or her.
  • A “new friend” suddenly begins handling the money for a senior.
  • The senior receives excessive amounts of junk mail.  (Once a senior takes the bait for one scam, thieves sell the person’s name, address and telephone number, and fake mailings proliferate.)
  • The phone rings excessively with sales calls.
  • He or she may be having difficulty buying groceries and paying bills.
  • They seem to receive lots of cheap items such as costume jewelry, beauty products, water filters, and knick-knacks that they bought to win something or received as prizes.

Tomorrow, we will outline common schemes that are used to prey on senior citizens.

John Sileo is an author and highly engaging speaker on fraud, internet privacy, identity theft and technology security. He is CEO of The Sileo Group, which helps organizations to protect the privacy that drives their profitability. His recent engagements include presentations at The Pentagon, Visa, Homeland Security and Northrop Grumman as well as media appearances on 60 MinutesAnderson Cooper and Fox Business. Contact him directly on 800.258.8076.