Clip ‘n’ Save: How to avoid scams that target seniors

“Wherever a new technology goes, scammers follow. There’ll be scammers on Mars just after the astronauts land.”

An FBI agent

Most techies know the term “social engineering;” it refers to a scammer’s ability to gain trust. The scammer may sound friendly, threatening or conspiratorial (“we can both get one over on them together!”), whatever the mode, they get you to believe they are who they say they are and that whatever they promise or threaten will come true. The simplest way to avoid getting scammed is this: Never agree immediately. No matter what sense of urgency a phone call, email, or letter may insist on: “Act Now to Save!” “Pay Now or Risk Jail!” always double-checkor have a friend or relative double-check for you. Never, ever provide private information such as credit card numbers, birth dates, or a social security number to someone who contacts you by phone or email.

By now, you may be thinking, “Thanks, but I’ve got good instincts; I can sense a rat.” Alas, a UCLA study from 2012 gave the dismal news that as we age our ability to detect untrustworthiness diminishes. The problem is compounded if you really did have good instincts–you may think that you still do, and not realize how badly out of tune your sense of trust has become.

So it would be best to keep your ego down–and your guard up. To that end, the FBI has compiled several pages of resources about various scams, including scams that specifically target seniors. We suggest that both seniors and adult children review them together. And oh by the way, boomers, this isn’t just about Mom and Dad and the guy who wants them to invest their life savings in time-shares. The UCLA researchers say the deterioration can start as young as the early 50s.

UPDATE: The Pacific Standard has a lengthy feature article (you may want to print it out for easier reading), on the “Grandparent Scam.” In this one, a scammer pretends to be a grandchild in trouble, who desperately needs money immediately (“Please don’t tell Mom and Dad!”). The scammer has a terrifyingly good reason for why his or her voice doesn’t sound quite like the beloved grandchild–there’s been a car accident and the child was injured but is now in jail because of a DUI and…

Here’s an excerpt:

“Why grandparents? I wondered. I wanted to know if, as many news reports indicate, it is because scammers figure that my generation tends to be easy to dupe. [The scammer] shrugged off the issue of age to emphasize the practical benefits of targeting the elderly: We are often at home, and our land-line numbers are more likely to show up on lists. But the most important factors are the geographic and psychological distances that usually exist between a grandparent and a grandchild. Grandparents aren’t likely to know the day-to-day details of their grandkids’ lives, but that doesn’t mean they won’t rally at a moment’s notice to protect a cherished relative.”

The author details the scam–so you can recognize it immediately if someone tries to con you–and explains that the trick is getting you so worried over the fate of your grandchild that your brain essentially short-circuits its own skepticism. We highly recommend you read the article.