Protecting Seniors from Scams with Education and Awareness
Older adults are full of wisdom and experience. But they are also frequent targets for scams, fraud, and deceit. But education and awareness efforts can help in protecting seniors from scams. By having conversations, highlighting common scammer tactics, sharing real-life anecdotes, and providing practical advice, we can all work together to safeguard our older loved ones.
See Financial Exploitation of Older Adults with Joyce Petrowski for a complete transcript of the Easy Prey podcast episode.
Joyce Petrowski is the founder of the nonprofit Resources and Outreach to Safeguard the Elderly, or ROSE. Their mission is to prevent financial exploitation and defrauding of older adults through advocacy and education. ROSE’s programs are comprehensive compared to many other options. They provide actionable resources, tools, and tips, go over then in group presentations, and then provide ways for participants to take the information home with them. Scam prevention isn’t one-size-fits-all and not every protection resource works for everyone. ROSE wants each senior to be able to decide what they want to implement and how.
The Story of ROSE
Joyce co-founded a nonprofit in 2014, and left that nonprofit in 2021. After leaving, she wasn’t looking to start anything. She intended to rest and relax for a little while. Then one of her loved ones got involved in a romance scam and lost some money. Joyce had known scams were out there, but hadn’t really paid much attention. After her loved one’s encounter, she started doing a lot of research. She realized how much of a problem scams were and how difficult it could be to break trust misplaced in a scammer.
She also talked to people who were already doing scam awareness and prevention work. If they had a handle on it, she wouldn’t need to start anything. But everyone she talked to said the problem was out of control and they needed all the help they could get. So Joyce decided to start another nonprofit.
ROSE was founded in August of 2021, and it focused solely on providing older adults the information they need to recognize scams and fraud and providing them tools to protect themselves. Most of ROSE’s meetings are in person. With the pandemic, Zoom and other platforms became popular, and a lot of people realized they could do meetings online. But for such a sensitive topic, Joyce felt that doing it in person would create more trust, which is why ROSE does the majority of its meetings in person.
ROSE partners with senior centers, 55+ communities, churches, independent and assisted living facilities, and anywhere they can reach older adults. In 2024, they are also working to implement programs for adult children of older loved ones so the seniors themselves and their children can work together in protecting seniors from scams.
Many Seniors are Aware of Scams
Most older adults Joyce has interacted with are aware that scams exist. They’ve gotten suspicious emails or phone calls and recognized that something isn’t right about it. But very few of them understand the strategies behind scams, how pervasive scams have become, or how scammers exploit technology to look trustworthy.
A lot of [older adults] are aware of scams … but they don’t realize to what depth these scammers are going.Joyce Petrowski
Twenty-five years ago, if you got an email with bad grammar or a phone call from another country, it’s a scam. Now you can’t rely on those cues. Scammers are savvy and tech-smart, and they’re always coming up with new stories, new tools, and new tech tricks to hide behind. Scammers take techniques from romance scams, add techniques from investment scams, and now you have a pig butchering scam. They figured out that most people are aware of IRS scams, so now they claim that police are coming with a warrant.
When facilitators at ROSE events ask if participants know anyone who has been scammed, often many people in the room do. And throughout the presentation, they try to be interactive with the audience. Sometimes through questions it comes out that they or someone they know were scammed. Most older adults know that scams are out there. To really protect seniors from scams, they need to be aware of how scams work in the modern day.
Evolving Warning Signs
Scams evolve at such a fast pace that it’s hard to give specifics. As soon as you tell someone to watch out for this specific phrase or this specific story, they change it. The best warning signs aren’t specific phrases or particular stories. They’re not even in particular methods. Scammers use email, texts, phone calls, dating sites, social media, online gaming chats, and all sorts of methods to run their scams. The best warnings are in patterns of how contact happens and what the scammer wants you to do. To really increase awareness and protect seniors from scams, they need to know the general red flags to watch for.
A message from a scammer will almost always been unexpected. Were you expecting a message from this person or company? If not, be suspicious. With email, if you hover over the sender’s name, it will show you the actual email address. Look at it carefully, because scammers are good at making it look legitimate at first glance. Did they change a letter to a number or vice versa? Are they using “rn” to replace “m” and hoping you won’t notice? Joyce recommends getting a piece of paper and writing down everything to the right of the @ sign. Sometimes it’s easier to read every individual symbol when it’s written down instead of on a screen.
If they call you on the phone and you weren’t expecting the call, be careful. Scammers can spoof caller ID and make themselves look like anyone. Check the actual number. If you don’t know it, don’t answer. That’s a lot easier said than done sometimes. We often answer the phone without thinking. But sometimes changing simple habits can do the best job at protecting seniors from scams.
There’s a phone setting called Silence Unknown Callers that can help. It’s in your settings on both iPhone and Android. When turned on, if a caller isn’t in your contacts your phone won’t even ring. People often say, “That’s great, Joyce. But when I do that I miss calls from my doctor because they have a bunch of different phone numbers.” There are two easy solutions for that. One is that if you’re expecting a call from your doctor, turn it off. Once you get the call, turn it back on. Another is that when you miss a call from your doctor, add the number to your doctor’s contact. Then it will ring through in the future.
Resist Emotional States by Slowing Down
Scammers can contact you through all sorts of methods. Anything that’s connected to the internet can potentially be a way for them to reach you. The key to protecting seniors from scams and helping them to protect themselves is learning to slow down. Think about what’s going on. If you’re not sure, talk to someone that you know and trust. Telling them about it and answering their questions may help you determine if it’s a scam.
The scammers are going to try to get you into that emotional state, whatever emotion it is.Joyce Petrowski
Scammers try to get you into an emotional state. There’s a lot of different emotions that they can try to trigger in you. But once they get you in the grips of some emotion, they want to keep you there. You’re more likely to do what they want when you’re in some kind of emotional state.
Joyce recently spoke to a woman who was inadvertently used as bait for a scam. A scammer cloned her Facebook account and started messaging friends and family asking for financial help. She had no idea until her brother-in-law called her and asked how much longer she was going to need their financial help. That was when she found out he had been sending money to someone he thought was her for the last three months. If someone reaches out and asks you for money, give them a call on a verified number. You will learn more about what’s going on in their life – or you’ll learn that the person asking you for money is a fraud.
Emotions Scammers Want You to Feel
Scammers use emotions to hook us. What emotions they want to trigger depends on the type of scam. In a romance scam, the victim is looking for love. If a scammer can get them to feel they’re in love and feel like they’re going to be with the scammer for the rest of their lives, it inspires a deep trust that’s hard to break.
Other scams try to inspire fear. Social Security scams, IRS scams, and medicare scams all fall under this umbrella. You didn’t pay your taxes, and if you don’t pay immediately you’re going to jail. There was fraud on your account, and if you don’t follow our instructions right now your Social Security or medicare is going to get locked. That scares people.
There are also the scams claiming you won a sweepstakes, won the lottery, or are getting a big inheritance from a long-lost relative. These are often called “greed,” by Joyce doesn’t like that word. Regardless of what you call it, the target wants to go along because they want that financial windfall.
[Scammers] seem to always know the right thing to say to keep the person in that frame of mind that they want them in.Joyce Petrowski
When you’re in an emotional state, you’re not necessarily thinking rationally. That’s why it’s helpful to have a trusted person who’s not in that emotional state with you as part of your process for protecting seniors from scams. They can ask questions and talk you through the situation without the emotional filter. You can use their feedback to determine if it makes sense or seems too good to be true.
When Seniors Resist Talking About Money
It’s more common than many people think for older adults to talk to their adult children about their finances. But put yourself in their shoes for a minute. They may be concerned that if they share too much, even well-meaning kids may take away their independence in the name of protecting seniors from scams and other financial risks. That’s why ROSE is starting a program for adult children of older adults. They need to be able to have conversations about money and keep those conversations going. An older loved one will feel more comfortable sharing their concerns if money is just part of the conversations they’ve been having with this person for years.
Some older adults prefer to talk to their peers. Sometimes it’s to see if anyone else has had the same experience, or sometimes it’s to warn them so it doesn’t happen to their friends. But there are some older adults who don’t want to talk to anyone about it. They won’t tell anyone and just want to put it behind them.
No Shame in Being Scammed
This also leads to a challenge of reporting. As previously mentioned, they may fear having their independence taken away. Many assume that they’re not going to get their money back, so there’s no point. There’s a also perception that being caught by a scam is shameful, so some won’t report because they don’t want to experience that shame.
There shouldn’t be any shame in being scammed because everyone is at risk. Scammers don’t care if you have money or not – if you don’t, they have tricks to get it from you anyway. Whatever your age, whatever your social class, scammers cast a wide net.
Anybody is susceptible to being scammed … scammers don’t discriminate.Joyce Petrowski
Some statistics say that only about 15%-20% of older adults actually report scams, for a variety of reasons. But reporting is part of protecting seniors from scams. Each reported scenario goes to law enforcement. Most of the time you’re not the only person targeted by this scam. The more information law enforcement has, the better chance they have of finding and stopping the scammer.
Another challenge is where and how to report. Joyce is a Baby Boomer, and her generation didn’t grow up with smartphones, computers, and all the tech out there now. Some of them learned it, some of them haven’t. But if you Google “where to report a scam,” you get so many options. Should you report it to your local police? The state police? The FBI? Your state attorney general? The Federal Trade Commission? It can be confusing, and that’s a barrier to reporting.
Steps to Protect Yourself and Others from Scams
Joyce touched on it earlier, but it’s worth repeating: Everyone is susceptible to falling for a scam. Some people realize after it happens, others take a while, still others don’t realize until they’ve lost all their money and the scammer disappears. Scammers don’t discriminate. They don’t care about your age or how much money you have. If you have a credit card, they will walk you through doing a cash advance, leaving you stuck with the bill. They have strategies to get what they want out of everyone.
Everyone needs to be aware, and everyone needs to be cautious. Have conversations with your loved ones. If protecting seniors from scams is important to you, have conversations with the seniors in your life. Remember that they didn’t grow up with all this tech – when they were growing up you generally just trusted everyone. It can be hard to be careful and cautious. Take the time to let them know what’s going on and be open and safe to share their struggles.
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