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Popular Elder Abuse Scams and How to Avoid Them

By Leigh Barber

With today’s elderly population expected to skyrocket in the coming years, scams targeted at the growing demographic are also increasing. The scams vary in tactics and severity, but all aim to harm American seniors. From Nigerian princes to fictitious relatives, seniors must protect themselves and their life savings from these criminal hair-brained schemes. People over 65 are 34% more likely to have lost money on a financial scam than people in their 40s, according to research by the Stanford Center on Longevity and the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority’s Investor Education Foundation. Almost 1 in 20 elderly respondents in a large 2014 study of New York residents reported being financially exploited at some point in their later lifetime.

The 419 Scam

One of the strangest, yet oldest scams is the 419 Scam, better known as the Nigerian Prince Scam. According to the Bank Policy Institute, the target receives a letter or email from a supposed Nigerian government official that offers them the opportunity to share in a percentage of millions of dollars that the author is promising. The scheme relies on convincing a victim to send money to the author of the letter in Nigeria in several installments of increasing amounts for a variety of reasons. These groups have succeeded in stealing millions of dollars from vulnerable elderly Americans.

How to Avoid

The FBI has tips for how to avoid being targeted by these groups; be skeptical of foreign government officials asking for help, do not believe the promise of large sums of money for cooperation, and to guard account information carefully.

The Fictitious Relative Scam

Another scam that specifically targets the elderly is the fictitious relative scam. These hit home for many seniors who care about their loved ones. In these scenarios, a scammer will call an elderly person, typically someone who is a grandparent, to tell them that their grandchild is in trouble and needs money. The perpetrator could also call the victim pretending to be a relative in distress and in need of cash and ask that money be wired or transferred either into a financial institution account. This manipulation can cause extensive financial and emotional stress on the victim.

How to Avoid

To avoid this scam, before sending funds, independently contact the relative (or parent of the relative) the scam artist is claiming to be (or represent) at a known phone number to verify the details of the story. Scams like this and many others are all types of elder abuse. These scams are crimes and should be reported to your local authorities.


FBI Scams and Safety Webpage.

“These scammers are targeting your elderly parents”, CNBC, 2015.

Protecting the Elderly from Financial Fraud and Exploitation, BITS, 2012.

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