Archibald-Pannone: Elder fraud soaring to epidemic proportions

Of the University of Virginia Medical School

Americans 60 and older lost more than $3 billion to scammers in 2023, according to the FBI.

As a geriatrician — a doctor who cares for people over 65 — I believe elder fraud has reached an epidemic scale. My patients often tell me about being scammed, and the consequences can be worse than just losing money.

The experience can be traumatic, with victims feeling shame and self-doubt in the aftermath. This can interfere with their relationships, erode their trust and harm their mental and physical health.

Teaching older Americans how to identify and avoid fraud — and how to report such crimes — could go some way toward mitigating the impact.

A recent FBI report shows just how prevalent elder fraud is.

In 2023, Americans over 60 submitted 14% more complaints to the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center than the previous year. Estimated financial losses rose about 11%.

Grim as they are, these numbers only represent the tip of the iceberg. For one thing, only about half of the reports of internet crimes to the FBI included information about the victim’s age, which means elder fraud is undercounted.

What’s more, they don’t include scams over the phone, by mail or in person. And many fraud victims never report their experiences, because they’re embarrassed, afraid or unsure what to do.

While people of all ages are victimized, older adults can prove uniquely vulnerable. The FBI suggests they are disproportionately targeted because they tend to be trusting, have savings, own homes and maintain good credit.

Older adults may also be less comfortable with new technology, which puts them at risk.

While many forms of technology have permeated our personal lives, it’s often in the workplace that many people receive training in its use. But someone who’s 85 may have retired in 2004 – three years before Apple introduced the iPhone.

In 2023, tech-support scams were the most commonly reported type of elder fraud. Other common schemes include romance scams, online shopping swindles and investment frauds.

Investment scams are the costliest, accounting for nearly half of all reported losses.

Fraudulent call centers are known for targeting older adults. Such scams made up 40% of reported elder fraud cases in 2023, according to the FBI, accounting for at least $770 million in losses.

Many make use of new technologies such as artificial intelligence to deceive people more effectively with voice-cloning scams or “deepfake” videos.

In 2022, more than 600 people reported being victimized in a single timeshare fraud. They collectively lost nearly $40 million.

And in the latter half of 2023, scammers posing as government officials and tech-support agents pushed victims to liquidate their assets or buy precious metals. Reported losses reached more than $55 million.

As with any epidemic, “infection control” tools can help limit the spread. Much like vaccines create immunity against viruses, prevention efforts can help people build up their defenses to avoid fraud.

The main tool is learning how to identify likely scams ahead of time. Here are a few FBI-approved tips:

- If you believe there is imminent danger to yourself or a loved one, call police immediately.

- Be cautious of unsolicited calls, mailings and door-to-door solicitations.

- Don’t click on any unsolicited links received via e-mail or text, even if they seem to be from people you know. And never open an e-mail attachment from an unknown source.

- If in doubt about a person or business, search online for their name, e-mail, phone number and address, as well as details about their proposed offers. These days, most legitimate businesses have some degree of web presence. And if it’s a scam, you might find others have already shared information about it.

- Never give or send anything to an unverified person or business. This includes any personally identifiable information, wire information, checks, money, jewelry or gift cards.

- Make sure your antivirus, malware and security software is up to date.

- If you encounter a suspect pop-up message, disconnect from the internet and shut down your device. Bad actors can use pop-ups to spread malicious software. You can enable pop-up blockers to avoid accidentally clicking on one.

- Don’t give anyone you don’t know remote access to “fix your computer” or other electronic device. This could let them see personal information, including details about your financial accounts.

- If you’re told to lie to your bank about why you need to wire money or make a withdrawal, it’s likely a scam. A legitimate business won’t insist you keep secrets from family or friends, either.

- Resist pressure to act quickly. Scammers often create a false sense of urgency. A legitimate business will let you think through your financial decisions.

- Finally, trust your instincts.

Despite your best efforts, you might still be taken in. If that happens, know you’re not alone and it’s possible to recover. Here’s some advice for dealing with the aftermath:

- If a criminal gains access to your device or account, take action to protect your identity. If a bank is involved, immediately place protections on your accounts, and begin monitoring accounts for suspicious activity.

- Contact your local FBI field office, or, if the crime was committed over the internet, submit a tip online.

- When reporting a scam, include as many details as possible. This can include names, dates of contact, methods of communication, phone numbers, e-mail and mailing addresses, and websites used by the perpetrator.

- Also note methods of payment, where you sent any funds — including wire transfers and prepaid cards — and account numbers. Offer descriptions of your interactions with the scammer and any instructions you were given.

- Whenever possible, keep original documents, e-mails, faxes and logs of communications.

Falling for a scam can be frightening and stressful, so talk with people who you know and trust to support you. Outside support groups include the AARP Fraud Watch Network and the Cybercrime Support Network’s Peer Support Program. If the trauma seems overwhelming, consult a counselor, therapist or doctor.

From The Conversation, an online repository of lay versions of academic research findings found at theconversation.com/us. Used with permission.


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