Money & Policy

4 Scams That Target Boomers

How to recognize and avoid these common frauds

(This article previously appeared on MarketWatch.)

If Willie Sutton were alive today, he would probably skip banks and head straight for older Americans and their retirement savings. Because for scammers, “That’s where the money is.”
While there is some question whether Sutton, a prominent bank robber in the mid-20th century, actually said those infamous words, there’s little doubt that households approaching, and already in, retirement control much of the wealth in the U.S. As such, they and their nest eggs increasingly are targets of financial fraud.
As Tom Lauricella explained this weekend in The Wall Street Journal, families can help prevent or limit losses if they recognize how scams work and discuss the threat with older relatives.

(MORE: Top 10 Scams Aimed at Older Adults)

How Scammers Get to Your Wallet
The first step: Don’t assume that because of your education or supposed business savvy, financial fraud can’t happen to you, says Doug Shadel, a former fraud investigator and now the state director for AARP in Washington.
Indeed, such schemes usually have nothing to do with intelligence or greed, he says. “The general strategy for scamming seniors … is to get them emotionally excited about something and not thinking clearly,” Shadel explains.
The classic example: the grandchild scam. This used to take place primarily on the telephone. But increasingly a con artist will send an email pretending to be a grandchild. (Social media make such contacts easier than ever.)

(MORE: 8 Tips to Protect Against Scams)

In the email, the “grandchild” claims to be stuck overseas or in jail and says he or she needs money wired as quickly as possible. Notably, the email also includes a request not to tell the grandchild’s parents. Shadel says many grandparents think, “There’s nothing I wouldn’t do for a grandchild, and I’ll ask questions later.”
Here are three other frequent frauds: 
1. Medicare discount-drug card fraud. Con artists will call, email or even knock on doors selling fake discount cards for drugs. (Legitimate prescription-drug benefit companies can’t make such unsolicited sales pitches.) Often, scammers are seeking personal data that they can use for identity theft.
2. Charity email scams. This scheme is seen frequently around holidays. Fraudsters send out emails asking for donations — often using the name of legitimate charities — with links to click on. The upshot: The victim unwittingly provides a bank-account number and other personal information to the con artist.

(MORE: How to Recognize Charity Fraud)

3. Magazine subscription and sweepstakes pitches. The pitch is the same, whether through email or old-fashioned mailers: If you wish to collect a “free” prize, buy magazines or send money now, or the offer will expire.
Even some well-known brands have been accused of this kind of fraud. Publishers Clearinghouse, for example, has over the years been the subject of legal action by state regulators and is currently being probed by a congressional committee for sending out sweepstakes entries that regulators say are misleading. (A company spokeswoman told Lauricella: “We believe our programs are in full compliance with all applicable laws, and we work closely with law enforcement and regulators on any concerns they have.”)
If you need additional help, federal and state online resources provide descriptions of scams and offer assistance to victims. The National Council on Aging lists 10 common frauds tageting seniors. The Federal Bureau of Investigation has a page dedicated to senior fraud, and AARP has a “fraud watch” page.

Glenn Ruffenach is News Editor at The Wall Street Journal, responsible for the Journal’s coverage of retirement finances and retirement planning.

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