10 scams targeting older members

From cute puppy swindles to tech support schemes, elder financial abuse comes in many forms.

January 15, 2023

Scammers take advantage of nearly 5 million older Americans every year, with the annual cost of financial abuse estimated at $36.5 billion.

Criminals often target people over 60 because they’re more financially secure, they may experience memory issues, and they tend to be more trusting. Credit union staff should brush up on these scams to protect older members:

1. The grandparent ruse

This ploy may be the most devious because it takes advantage of many older adults’ biggest vulnerability: the love of their grandchildren and the fear of putting them at risk.

Criminals will call an older person and say something like, “Hi Grandma, do you know who this is?” When the unsuspecting grandparent guesses the name of a grandchild the scammer sounds most like, the fraudster has established a fake identity without any effort or background research.

Once the grandparent “correctly guesses” which grandchild is calling, the scammer will ask for money to solve an unexpected financial problem, such as overdue rent, car repairs, or even a hospital bill because the grandchild has been in an accident.

The funds must be paid via Western Union, MoneyGram, or a similar method. The scammer will also beg the grandparent, “please don’t tell my parents.”

2. Cute puppy swindle

Seniors can be particularly vulnerable to pet scams, especially if they’ve lost a loved one and are looking for a companion. A scammer will post a picture of an adorable puppy that’s available for an unbelievably low price. There’s usually a heartbreaking background story about why the animal needs a new home ASAP.

Once the older person contacts the seller (scammer), they must pay a number of fees—up-front adoption charges, shipping costs—via wire transfer or prepaid debit card. Then, after paying those fees, multiple delays and additional fees arise, including insurance costs, specialized veterinary care, and quarantine costs. In reality, there was never a puppy and the victim’s money is gone.

3. Tech support

Scammers will pose as support representatives offering to resolve issues related to a compromised email, financial account, computer virus, or even a software license renewal.

These scams usually start with a phone call or a pop-up warning of a computer problem that provides a number to call. The fraudsters often claim to be from Microsoft or Apple, and they may even spoof caller ID to make it look like one of these companies is actually calling.

In another twist, they get people who actually need computer help to call them by posting phony customer support numbers for well-known companies online. These scammers convince people to hand over remote access to their computers and then make a big show of “troubleshooting.”

They may open system folders or run scans that show evidence of a problem. Then they ask for money for supposed repairs and fake service contracts.

4. Online romance

Romance scammers usually create fake profiles on dating websites and on social media sites. While they can be hard to spot, the tactics they use are common. For example: 

  • They claim to be living or traveling outside the U.S., which allows them to avoid meeting with victims in person.
  • They quickly escalate the relationship by using flattery, professing love, and asking to move conversations off the dating service so they can communicate directly by text or email.
  • They make plans to get together in person but always come up with excuses not to meet.
  • They claim to have a medical emergency or unexpected expense for which they need money.
  • They ask for money to pay for a trip together or to visit. They typically ask the person to wire the funds or to buy a gift card or cash reload card and provide them with the card number.

While the scammers may be easy to spot from the credit union’s perspective, your members may not take kindly to suggestions that their new love is actually a criminal. They’ll remind you that it’s their money and they can spend it however they like. 

While this is true, it doesn’t make watching members lose their life savings any easier.

5. Pigeon drop

This scheme takes on various scenarios. Generally, the scammer tells the potential victim (the “pigeon”) they’ve found a large sum of money and will split it if the victim makes a show of good faith by giving cash to the scammer to hold while they determine how to split the money.

This ruse often occurs in a store parking lot, where the scammer approaches the selected victim and claims to have found a bag, briefcase, or envelope, and asks whether it belongs to the victim.

When they look inside the bag for identification, they find what appears to be a large amount of cash with some indication it comes from an illegal activity, such as gambling or drugs, so returning the money is impossible.

The final step is the request that each person who “found” the money offer a deposit of their own money to show good faith that they will split the funds. Once the victim provides their “good faith” cash, the scammers deftly switch out the “found money” for a look-alike bag or envelope full of useless paper. 

The scammers are long gone with the victim’s good faith money before the victim determines the “found money” has been switched.

NEXT: Phishing

6. Phishing

A senior receives emails that appear to be from a legitimate company or financial institution asking them to update or verify their personal information. In one variation of this scam, the member receives an email that appears to be from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) about a tax refund that requests personal information to deliver the funds. As many people know, the IRS never sends such emails.

7. Investments

Investment scams target older members looking to safeguard money for their later years. From pyramid schemes like the one that made Bernie Madoff infamous to stories of a Nigerian prince looking for a partner to claim an inheritance, investment schemes have long taken advantage of older people.

8. Homeowner schemes

Criminals like to take advantage of the fact that many people above a certain age own their homes, a valuable asset that increases the potential dollar value of certain scams.

Home-related schemes include:

  • A property tax scam where fraudsters send personalized letters to different properties apparently on behalf of the county assessor’s office. The letter, made to look official but displaying only public information, identifies the property’s assessed value and offers the homeowner, for a fee, to arrange for a reassessment of the property’s value and the tax burden associated with it. The member must pay the fee in advance and, after making the payment, the victim never hears from the “assessor’s office” again.
  • Reverse mortgages. As opposed to official refinancing programs, unsecured reverse mortgages can lead property owners to lose their homes when the scammers offer money or a free house somewhere else in exchange for the title to the property.

9. Sweepstakes and lottery

Older members learn they’ve won a lottery or sweepstakes and must make some sort of payment (i.e., to cover the taxes) before they can collect the winnings. To lend credibility to the scam, seniors will often receive a check representing partial payment of the winnings they can deposit into their credit union account.

Before the check is rejected as fraudulent, the scammers quickly collect money from the older member for the supposed fees or taxes on the prize. When the check bounces, the scammers are long gone and the member is out all of the “tax and fee” money they paid.

10. Funerals

The FBI warns of two types of funeral-related fraud used against seniors. In the first, scammers read obituaries and call or attend the funeral service to take advantage of the grieving widow or widower. The scammer claims the deceased had an outstanding debt with them, and will try to extort money to settle the fake debts.

In another ruse, funeral directors will insist they need to use an expensive burial casket even when performing a direct cremation. In reality, a less-expensive casket would suffice.

Credit union staff should be on the lookout for red flags that may indicate your members are being defrauded. 

Educate your members about the latest scams, warn them if you see suspicious activity, and, when appropriate, file a suspicious activity report with the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network and notify your local adult protective services agency.

COLLEEN KELLY is senior federal compliance counsel at Credit Union National Association. Contact her at 202-604-9862 or


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