Seniors: Beware of These 5 Scams!

“Hello! You are visitor number 1,000,000! Click here to claim your free car!” Have you ever seen an online ad like that? If you were online 10 or 15 years ago, you could expect to see something like that almost on every other webpage. And, invariably, it was never true!

Those kinds of online scams, which might just sign you up for unwanted spam emails, pale in comparison to some of the traditional types of scams that are still going around, and which are particularly targeted towards seniors.

In late March, the U.S. Senate’s Special Committee on Aging released its Fraud Book identifying the top 10 scams reported to the committee by seniors during 2017. I thought it would be useful to go through the top 5 and provide some tips about how to recognize, avoid, and respond to them.

2. IRS Impersonators

In this scam, the fraudsters call their victim from what seems to be a government number and claim to work for the IRS. They allege that the victim owes back taxes and, unless he or she pays them immediately by credit card or wire transfer, could have his or her house taken away or even be arrested. According to the committee, this scam has cheated more than 12,000 Americans out of $65 million.

Tip: The IRS communicates with taxpayers using letters, not threatening phone calls. If you receive one of these calls, you can report it to the IRS here. See this flyer for more information.

2. Unsolicited Robocalls

Since Congress enacted the federal Do Not Call registry 15 years ago, telecommunications technology has overtaken the law. Today, scammers use inexpensive technology to spoof a local number from anywhere in the world. Once they have their target on the line, the scam begins in earnest: Maybe they claim your car warranty is expired, and wouldn’t you like to renew? Or they may pretend to be calling from a charity, and would you please donate?

Tip: Don’t give out personal or financial information during an unsolicited call from an unknown caller. If the caller pretends to be from a company you do business with or a government agency, hang up and call that business or agency directly.

3. Sweepstakes/Jamaican Lottery Scams

The sweepstakes/Jamaican lottery scam involves the scammers contacting their victim by phone or mail and claiming that he or she has won a sweepstakes or the Jamaican lottery. But there’s a hitch: The supposed winner must pay some modest processing fee—or not-so-modest taxes—to receive his or her winnings. Of course, the winnings are never paid.

Tip: If someone tells you that you won a sweepstakes or lottery you never entered, it’s almost certainly too good to be true. If they ask you to pay something before you can receive your winnings, it’s definitely a scam.

4. “Can You Hear Me?” Scams

This is a particularly tricky scam. In it, the scammer calls the victim and asks, “Can you hear me?”, “Are you there?”, or prompts him or her to press a button to connect to a live person. In any event, the target’s response is recorded and treated as his or her consent to a purchase that he or she doesn’t actually agree to.

Tip: The FTC advises that if you receive a call like this, just hang up. Don’t say anything, and don’t press any buttons. Otherwise, “it will probably just lead to more robocalls.”

5. Grandparent Scams

In a grandparent scam, the victim receives a phone call claiming to be from his or her grandchild or someone holding the grandchild (e.g., a kidnapper or the police). The caller tells the victim that the grandchild is in trouble and needs money quickly.

Tip: If you receive a call like this, ask the caller for information only your grandchild would know. Or, better yet, call his or her parents to confirm the caller’s claims—especially if the caller asks you not to do that!


The best protection against being scammed is to stay vigilant. Don’t trust someone just because they call you or send you a letter. And if something seems too good to be true, it probably is. Sure, it’d be nice if you won the Jamaican lottery, but unless you live in Jamaica and bought a ticket recently, the chances of that are pretty slim! So be alert, and if you ever have questions about the legitimacy of a phone call or letter you’ve received, run it by someone you trust before giving out personal information or paying anything.

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