Scams don't discriminate. There's one for every group and every situation -- the Gulf oil spill, the Haiti earthquake and people of all ages. But seniors seem to be a particularly favorite target and lately, state and federal agencies have issued warning after warning that the crooks are after the older people's money.
A recent survey found that one in five seniors -- more than 7 million people -- have been ripped off.
Here are the top five scams targeting seniors:
The president and consumer advocacy groups issued alerts last week regarding the $250 rebate checks the government is sending to seniors on Medicare. Scammers are taking advantage of the confusion over who's getting the check. Beware of anyone who claims to have the ability to retrieve the check more quickly and can do so if provided with personal information.
Scammers are also asking seniors to send them their Medicare card so they can replace the card with a new one, falsely citing changes in Medicare as the reason.
Consumer fraud expert Sally Hurme, senior project manager for education and outreach at AARP, told Consumer Ally that scammers like to read the headlines and craft their pitches around the news.
The health-care law is something new and big, so the con artists craft their pitches to see if they can make any form of legitimacy to their tale," Hurme said. "We and the [Obama] administration and law enforcement are all very poised and prepared to try to head off these scams before they really dig deep into the population."
These scams take advantage of the economic downturn with false promises for seniors who've lost some of their investments.
Ponzi schemes are a prime example of this type of scam. Someone claiming to be an investment adviser or promoter offers the consumer a return that is too good to be true. But when consumers ask for their money, the investor can't return it because the money is gone.
Seniors are also being targeted by brokers encouraging them to buy variable annuities. The broker encourages the senior to withdraw funds from one account, for example, and invest it in an annuity. In some cases, scare tactics are used and seniors are incorrectly told that annuities will protect them from lawsuits or having their assets seized.
Sandie Jernigan, Seminole County manager for the Seniors vs. Crime project in Florida, said she's seeing more and more seniors getting caught up in this type of scam.
"They need to check to see if these brokers are legit or if they've had any complaints filed against them in the last five or six years," Jernigan told Consumer Ally. "It's usually a broker who's out to get a big commission."
A good way to check a broker's record is to visit the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority website and enter the requested information on the person or brokerage firm.
This scam comes back year after year. Scams return because they are successful, which means people fall for them. In this one, a grandparent is called by someone posing as a grandson or granddaughter. The caller claims to be in trouble and in need of cash and asks that the money be wired.
Recently, seniors in some states reported receiving calls from crooks claiming that relatives were stranded in Europe because of the Icelandic volcano eruption and needed money immediately to pay expenses.
Sweepstakes/fake check scam
Victims either receive a letter in the mail or an e-mail claiming they've won the lottery or sweepstakes. Sometimes the e-mails claim to be from someone in a different country.
The messages usually explain that in order to receive the money, the recipient has to mail or wire funds to prepay the taxes on the winnings. They might also be told that the fees will cover the cost of putting the money into an account.
Similarly, consumers should be wary of fake checks coming in the mail. They are typically sent as a supposed payment for something like a "secret shopper" program in which the victim sends a smaller amount to the scammer with the mistaken belief that they'll profit in the end. Although they may look real, they're not. The checks bounce and consumers are typically left with the responsibility of reimbursing their bank for the amount.
Just about anyone with email has received a message that looks like it's from a bank or Amazon or eBay. The emails or text usually state that there's a problem with the recipient's account and may direct the person to another website that asks for a bank account number, Social Security number or password.
Consumers shouldn't click on those links or enter any personal, identifiable information on those sites.
The opportunities to defraud seniors are always there, but consumer advocates say that keeping these scams in mind when offered any kind of deal is a good way to not fall victim.
"The bad guys are really creative and they're good at what they do and we all have to be vigilant," Hurme said.
You can get more information about scams targeting seniors from the FBI.
Seniors should watch out for these five scams