How Seniors Can Stay Safe Online

Senior man using his computer

One in ten U.S. adults is a victim of fraud each year. That estimate is probably lower than the actual number. For each case that victims report to authorities, another 10 to 44 cases are not reported.

Seniors are even more susceptible to fraud than the average person. According to the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3), elderly Americans lose $3 billion to scams each year. Cybercrimes targeting older adults have increased 400% between 2014 and 2019.

Fortunately, there is something the seniors can to do to protect themselves online: learning more about how scams work and the types to watch out for. People who know about a scam beforehand are much less likely to engage with it. Once you recognize the tactics that scammers use, you can defend yourself too.

How Scammers Operate

Scammers target people using three key tools: uncertainty, emotion, and urgency. If con artists can make you unsure how to act (uncertainty), create fear or excitement (emotion), and then force you to act quickly (urgency), they can steer you into a bad decision


Maria Konnikova explains how con artists use emotion in her book, The Confidence Game. Our brains have two basic systems: an emotional one and a rational one. When we feel very scared, nervous, excited, or some other strong emotion, the emotional system takes over for the rational one. Then our decision making gets worse.

Scammers create emotion through stories. Some con artists create excitement by telling people they won the lottery and asking them to imagine how they will spend the money. Other scammers create fear by posing as the police and telling people they will go to jail unless they pay a fine immediately. Either way, we start acting irrationally.

Part of what makes stories so effective is that they are hard to argue with. If someone only explained the math behind the lottery, you probably wouldn’t buy a ticket. But, so long as a story makes sense, we will accept it. The standards for a good story are much lower than the standards for a good argument.


We all make better decisions in familiar situations. You know how to act in the grocery store or the post office because you have been there many times. But, in unfamiliar situations, when we are uncertain, we all make mistakes.

Scammers create uncertainty by making things as confusing as possible. That way, you cannot follow how the con is supposed to work. They also work on your pride by suggesting you are smart enough to understand all the details. That keeps you from asking more questions or going to other people for advice (more on that below).

Scammers will also give you more and more details, one after another, until you cannot keep them all straight. Scammers know that our decision making gets worse when we have a lot on our minds.


Scammers want to make you act quickly so you don’t have time to think things over or to talk about them with anyone else. People are much more likely to be victims of scams if there was no one else they could discuss the scam with. This is also why many scammers insist on confidentiality, or tell you not to discuss things with anyone else.

So, scammers will tell you that you need to act right now. Maybe their offer is going to expire, or you can only claim your lottery winnings for a certain time. Or maybe the police are on their way to arrest you right now if you don’t pay this fine.

Often, requests will start small. Scammers will ask for something simple like your name or to confirm your phone number. But from there, the scam will build, until they’re asking you for money or your social security number.

In Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, Robert Cialdini calls this the foot-in-the-door tactic. The small favor gets the scammer’s foot in the door. After that, they can make bigger and bigger demands and you are more likely to agree.

After making a choice, we all feel pressure to stick to that commitment. That convinces us we made the right choice initially. Scammers use our desire to be consistent to get more out of us.

A Real-Life Example

You can hear these three tactics at work in a recording of a real scam call that a security company gave to NPR. A scammer pretending to be an IRS agent called one of their employees, Emma.

The fake agent tells Emma that the IRS has audited her taxes and she owes money. The local police are coming to her house to arrest her and will arrive any minute. Her house will be seized and she could go to jail for up to five years, unless she sends them the money right away. His final warning is to not tell anyone that she is in trouble.

The scammer employs all the tricks listed above. He makes her fearful and uncertain by saying the police are on the way. He creates urgency by saying the police will get there soon, so she needs to send the money immediately. And he tells her that she does not have time to speak with anyone else about it.

But it’s easy to recognize a scam from the outside. It’s much harder to see it’s a scam when the scammer is talking to you.

It Can, and Does, Happen to Anyone

Maybe you think you could never be the victim, that you’re too smart to fall for the same tricks as everyone else. Unfortunately, scams happen to everyone.

According to an article from the Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, victims of online scams share certain behaviors, but not traits. Victims vary in age, ethnicity, income level, and education.

The ideal type of scam (see below) may be different for different people. Certain online scams target seniors specifically.  Still, there is a scam for everyone.

How easily you will fall for a scam depends more on what your life is like at that moment than what you are like as a person. In an AARP survey of scam victims, researchers found that victims were more likely to:

  • Feel isolated or lonely
  • Be recently unemployed
  • Have lost money lately
  • Be concerned about debt

The Major Types of Online Scams

Because everyone can get scammed, it’s important to know exactly what to look out for. That will help seniors stay safe online, along with everyone else. The right technology can help you age in place, but it can also make you vulnerable.

The list below includes some of the most common scams and who they target.

Authority Scams

In these cons, scammers pretend to be from organizations like the IRS, the Social Security Administration, law enforcement, or some other group with wide authority. These scams are all about creating fear by confronting people with an unexpected arrest or fine.

The most common version is the IRS scam—like the one from the NPR example above. Social security scams are a particular problem for seniors. People call the fraud hotline of the Senate Aging Committee to complain about IRS scams almost twice as much as the next most reported scam. Often, fraudulent emails may include convincing letterhead or the IRS logo to make them seem more authentic.

Focusing on how these organizations would normally operate will help you spot a scam:

  • The IRS and other agencies will always contact you by mail first
  • They will never threaten immediate consequences: all agencies have to follow due process
  • They won’t ask for PINs, passwords, bank codes, or other private information
  • They don’t accept payments through gift cards or money orders

Again, the key is to stay calm and take your time.

Affinity Fraud

Scammers will often use their membership in a group to build trust. Those groups could be ethnic communities, professional groups, clubs, or churches. We assume that since these people are like us and we wouldn’t scam anyone, that means they would not scam anyone either. Of course, that’s not necessarily true.

Affinity scams are a common type of social media scam. It’s easy for scammers to use social media to try to create a connection.

Affinity scams work well with groups whose native language is not English. Often these people need to trust someone with better English skills for help with daily tasks. Likewise, church members are susceptible since religions often include moral codes that prohibit theft. Religious affinity scams often include a fake charity as well.

Catfishing and Romance Scams

Catfishing is when people create fake profiles online to look like someone else. Usually it happens on dating sites: a scammer might pretend to be an attractive young women to take money from single men.

In 2017, romance scams cost victims over $200 million. Nearly half of victims were 50 or older. Because older people may be lonely, senior dating scams are very common.

After starting a relationship with someone online, the scammer will start to ask for money, usually small amounts at first (following the foot-in-the-door tactic) for emergencies or to travel to visit the victim. Over time, these requests will get larger until the victim catches on and stops the relationship.

Luckily, there are things you can do to protect yourself from catfishing or romance scams:

  • Be wary of people who say they cannot meet, talk on the phone, or use video chat
  • Be suspicious of constant emergencies and broken plans
  • Never turn over personal photos you would not want widely available
  • Don’t give out any money
  • Verify information from dating profiles with independent sources
  • Watch out for love bombing: excessive displays of affection early in a relationship
  • Avoid moving off the dating site too soon: scammers often want to talk over private email or a messaging service

Prize and Lottery Scams

The hallmark of a prize or lottery scam is the scammer will ask you to pay for shipping or taxes upfront in order to receive your prize. Once you do, you’re left waiting for a prize that never arrives.

No legitimate contest will ever ask you to pay the taxes upfront. If you win the lottery, any applicable taxes will come from your winnings. Likewise, if you don’t remember signing up for the contest, it is most likely a scam. Real lotteries require winners to claim their prizes.

Fake Receipts and Charges

In this ploy, scammers send you a receipt that looks like it comes from a real online seller like Amazon or eBay. The receipt will be for a product you never bought and the message will include a link for you to dispute the charge.

Don’t click the link. It’s a trap. Either the link will infect your computer with a virus, or it will take you to a fake site to steal your personal information and credit card number.

If you are concerned about this fake purchase, go to your account on the website and check it for yourself.

Grandparent Scam

For obvious reasons, seniors are the most common target of grandparent scams, but variations can work on anyone. Scammers call or email claiming a relative is in trouble and needs money, usually for something like bail or medical expenses.

If you get a call like this, the best thing to do is hang up and call your relative to confirm it is them. Or, you can ask the scammer questions that only your relative would know the answers to. Just be careful not to ask for answers that the scammer could find online (just another reason to be careful what you post on social media).

Make Money from Home Scams

Fake job posting scams will claim that you can make thousands of dollars a month working from home. Usually the job is picking up undelivered packages or routing money

These scams are really a way of moving stolen goods or laundering money. In the worst case, you could be the accessory to a crime. As always, if an opportunity looks too good to be true, it probably is.

Tech Support Scams

Senior computer users are often the target of tech support scams. According to the Federal Trade Commission, people over 60 are 371% more likely to lose money in a tech support scam.

In this scam, a con artist pretends to be from a well-known company like Apple or Microsoft. They claim your computer has been infected with a computer virus and offer to fix it. The scammers can then charge you for fake service, take control of your computer, or request personal information to steal your identity.

In some cases victims might even seek out the scammers themselves. Con artists have advertised on Google using certain search terms like “virus removal” or “how to get rid of a computer virus”. People click on these sponsored results and do not realize the company they call is fraudulent.

Scams Are Constantly Evolving

It’s important to remember that scammers are always improving their tactics. There are resources to help you stay up-to-date on the latest scams. The FTC publishes Scam Alerts on their website and through their email newsletter to cover the tricks scammers are using right now. Likewise, you can sign up for free Watchdog Alerts from the AARP Fraud Watch Network.

The best things you can do are to stay informed and stay vigilant. Everyone is a potential victim, but the more you know about how online scams work, the better you can protect yourself.

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