Phishing Scams, Identity Theft On Rise Among Senior Citizens


Many online thieves go after senior citizens because they likely have a solid nest egg and have excellent credit, two appealing traits for thieves.

Unfortunately, seniors are more likely to fall victim to Internet fraud such as non-delivery of items ordered online and credit and debit card scams.

Jeff Lanza, a retired FBI Agent who now travels across the country providing risk-management seminars, says education is key.

He says this education has to go beyond telling seniors to protect their Social Security cards or shred their documents.

Although identity-theft numbers are not broken down by age, Lanza feels that seniors are at a particular disadvantage.

“If their purse or wallet gets stolen, their Social Security number is on their Medicare card. That thief also will get the victim’s driver’s license and address as well, and that’s all they need to steal their identity,” he says.

While the U.S. government has made all states take citizens’ Social Security numbers off drivers’ licenses, what can seniors do to protect their Social Security number on that Medicare card? Lanza has a trick that just may work.

“I tell seniors to take their Medicare card and make a copy of it, but cover up the Social Security number with a white strip of paper, and use that copy as the card they keep in their wallet,” he says.

“When seniors go to the doctor, they can just tell them the number directly. That’s one way to keep your Social Security number out of your wallet,” he adds.

Online Safety for Seniors

Lanza — who for more than twenty years investigated identity theft, corruption, and computer fraud within the FBI — also wants seniors to learn to prevent identity theft and use legitimate websites safely. After all, many seniors are very new to using social media platforms like Facebook or shopping on e-commerce sites like eBay or Amazon.

It’s important that seniors understand the privacy implications of shopping and socializing online so they don’t become victims of identity theft, he cautions.

“Seniors are somewhat less-proficient at using the Internet in terms of what to watch out for, and they’re more trusting. What generally happens is they don’t know not to click on certain things and not to reply to unsolicited emails,” he says.

What are some other cons? Seniors may get “phishing” emails saying they’ve won something and need to provide their personal information like name, address, and bank account information to collect the prize.

“The way the schemes work, the people on the other end keep dragging them along. Some seniors will drop out, but a lot of times, the way our brain works, you have this cognitive dissonance that builds up in your psyche and think eventually you’re going to win. So, that helps you believe that you haven’t been scammed; it’s almost like a gambler’s mentality,” says Lanza.

He says the cases we’ve seen reported dealing with online crime among seniors may be “just the tip of the iceberg.”

While some reports say roughly 20% of Americans 65 and over have been exploited online, those figures don’t tell the whole story. Sometimes seniors are too embarrassed to admit to their families that they’ve been scammed, and other times they simply don’t report the crime at all to the police.

In one recent example, he heard of someone elderly who gave away over $300,000 total. The family didn’t find out about it until too late in the scheme, and they didn’t want to contact the police or the FBI.

“This scam started out online with a phishing email. The person responded and gave out her telephone number, and then they started talking on the phone. The thief found a prey and then continued asking for more money,” he says.

Here are some tips that seniors can take to prevent various forms of Internet fraud:

  • Don’t give out your credit card number online unless the site is secure; look for HTTPS and encrypted websites.
  • Do your homework on the individual or company: look for a physical address, check with the Better Business Bureau, and Google the person to find out if the company is legitimate or a scam.
  • Avoid responding to special-investment offers or financial-related emails.
  • Use a credit card online, rather than a debit card, as it’s simpler to dispute the charges if something goes wrong.
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Elaine Rigoli

Elaine Rigoli is PRIVATE WiFi's manager of digital content strategy.