It is estimated that millions of older adults, from all walks of life, encounter harmful scams every year. By knowing how to identify financial scams and the people who commit them, you can protect yourself and others from becoming a victim.

Telemarketing and Bulk Rate Mail Tricks

It can be extremely difficult to tell if a telemar­keting call or offer by mail is legitimate. This is especially true if you are being pressured to make an instant decision; for example, to send money right away to pay taxes on money you’ve supposedly won in order to claim the prize (you should never have to pay to receive a prize; no legitimate sweepstakes company will ask you for money). If the notice was mailed by bulk rate, many other people have received the same “winning” notice as well.

Scams can range from travel packages to phony charities to deals that are too good to be true.  And be wary of the grandparent scam: A person poses as grandchild without stating their name and asks for money right away to get out of jail, buy a plane ticket home, etc.  They beg “please don’t tell mom and dad.”  (Note that with the advent of oversharing on social media, it is possible that the perpetrator has obtained the name of your loved one and knows where they currently are located based on their posts.)

NEVER give out your personal information (name, date of birth or Social Security number) to anyone who has contacted you by telephone or email.  Hang up the phone and call a family member or friend to help determine the validity of the call or email and report it to the company or institution the perpetrator is impersonating.

Social Security Administration Imposters

Social Security phone scams are the number one type of fraud reported to the Federal Trade Commission and Social Security. These scams—misleading victims into making cash or gift card payments to avoid arrest for Social Security number problems—have recently skyrocketed.

Social Security employees will occasionally contact you by telephone or mail if you have ongoing business with the agency. However, Social Security employees will not:

  • Tell you that your Social Security number has been suspended or involved in a crime.
  • Contact you to demand an immediate payment.
  • Ask you for credit or debit card numbers over the phone.
  • Require a specific means of debt repayment, like cash, a prepaid debit card, a retail gift card, or other unusual ways for “safekeeping.”
  • Demand that you pay a Social Security debt without the ability to appeal the amount you owe.
  • Promise a Social Security benefit approval, or increase, in exchange for information or money.
  • Threaten to seize or freeze your accounts if you fail to act quickly.

Sometimes perpetrators will use robocalls to reach their victims.  You may be told to press “1” to speak with a government “support representative” for help reactivating your Social Security number.  And do not always believe your caller ID—perpetrators also use caller ID spoofing to have your telephone show that the Social Security Administration is calling.  Often the perpetrators use telephone numbers with the same area code and prefix as yours in an effort to get you to answer the call.

Remember that Social Security employees will never threaten you. If there is a problem with your Social Security record, Social Security will mail you a letter. If Social Security needs you to submit payments, the agency will provide instructions in the letter, including options to make those payments.  These same rules apply to the Internal Revenue Service, Franchise Tax Board, or other governmental agencies who may have access to your personal information.

How to Recognize A Scam

  • Is the salesperson using high pressure sales tactics?
  • Are you being asked to pay upfront fees? Lottery and sweepstakes scams often employ this tactic. If you really won something the fees can be taken out of your winnings.
  • Are you being told that you won a contest that you did not enter? Lottery and sweepstakes scams almost always start this way. You cannot win a contest that you did not enter.
  • Have you been scammed in the past? Often scam victims have their personal contact information sold to other con artists. (A friend recently told me that she had received three separate “grandparent scam” calls, despite having no children or grandchildren.) You may get unsolicited calls from people promising to get your money back or provide other remedies or offers, which may also be scams.
  • Did you receive unsolicited mail, emails, or phone calls for services that you were not seeking? Research companies you may want to employ, or ask others for referrals to companies they have used for the same services. Many scams begin with someone knocking on your door offering services or sending out promotional materials (this often happens in the case of home repair scams).
  • Are you being contacted by the police over the phone? Verify that they are who they say they are. Some scams begin with a person pretending to be a police officer who tells you they are concerned that you have been a victim of a crime. They then proceed to solicit your personal information. In truth, the police will contact you in person if they have questions for you or believe that you have been a victim of a crime.

Predatory Tactics

Predators win you over by first gaining your trust. Their goal is to get you to think emotionally instead of logically. They accomplish this by using false statements to convince you that you need to move fast, that your money is no longer safe, and only they can help protect your money and your home. They will use a variety of tactics to manipulate your emotions, for example:

  • Fear: “Act now or you will lose your life savings!”
  • Anger: “The government won’t tell you about the special benefits you are entitled to!”
  • Hope: “This is your money. I can help you protect it so no one can touch it!”
  • Sense of entitlement: “The government has a special senior entitlement program that pays for nursing homes.”

How To Protect Yourself

  • Sign up for the Do Not Call Registry at
  • When no longer needed, shred junk mail, old bills, bank statements and any other documents that have personal identifying information.
  • Never give out personal information over the phone unless you originated the call and you know with whom you are talking. Particularly safeguard your Social Security number.
  • Permit yourself to be rude. If a salesperson calls you or comes to your door who does not seem to be taking no for an answer, terminate the conversation. Hang up the phone or close the door. Do not let them pressure you into anything!
  • Never sign something that you do not understand. Have a trusted and unbiased professional assist you when entering contracts or signing legal documents.
  • If you hire someone for personal assistance services, in-home care services, etc. ensure that they have been properly screened, including criminal background checks.
  • Learn about scams and stay informed.


Next week:  Planning and Prevention