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Adults over age 50—particularly those in retirement—may find themselves with more spare time. As such, they may become lonely. They may also become more willing to listen to others. These, unfortunately, are the qualities criminals prey on.

Americans in that demographic lose an estimated $2.9 billion annually to financial exploitation, according to the Senate Special Committee on Aging. Black- and Latino-Americans can be even more susceptible: A new AARP survey of roughly 1,100 adults found that 2 in 5 black Americans and the same proportion of Latinos say they’ve lost money. For those Black Americans scammed, the ones most likely to lose money were men with at least a college degree and an annual household income of at least $100,000. For Latinos, it was suburban men with at least a college degree and an annual household income of at least $50,000.

Should you or someone you know be in that age group, know that these scams tend to fall into four major categories. Below are the most common types of fraud aimed at adults over 50 and the accompanying red flags.

Government impostors

Getting a call or message from the government can be scary. It can also be fake. Here are the agencies often impersonated by criminals, what they say they’re looking for, and how older Americans can avoid falling into their traps.

Not the Social Security Administration: Scammers impersonating Social Security may either attempt to steal money or a person’s identity. They may:

  • Call to “verify” a Social Security number—possibly to “fix” tax returns, which, the scammers say, were filed incorrectly.
  • Claim that benefits have been suspended.
  • Ask for money to be wired to them or request cryptocurrency or gift cards.

The actual Social Security Administration wouldn’t make threats or suspend a Social Security number. Nor would they call, email, text, or contact people through social media. For the record, the agency’s policy is to only conduct business with account holders by mail. The SSA will never call regarding an account, even if they see suspicious activity.

Some ways potential targets can avoid Social Security scams include:

  • Don’t click on any links in texts or emails.
  • Don’t automatically believe a call is coming from the Social Security Administration, since Caller IDs can be faked.
  • Don’t give money or personal information.
  • If it’s a robocall, don’t press any numbers, since doing so can just lead to more calls.
  • Call your local Social Security office directly, should the need come to contact them.

Not Medicare: Impersonators may contact potential victims asking for their Medicare number (an attempt by scammers to direct benefits to themselves). They may also ask for bank account information, claiming they need it to send out a new Medicare card. Needless to say, those contacted should never give out that information.

Not the I.R.S.: IRS impostors may make contact, claiming they’re owed taxes. They will make threats, saying non-payment can result in arrest, deportation, or a revoked driver’s license.

Anyone who actually does owe that agency money would get two letters via the U.S. mail: one from the IRS itself and one from a private debt collector. The real I.R.S. would never ask for payment via wire transfer, cash, gift cards, or cryptocurrency.

Fake work-from-home opportunities

The golden rule of employment: The employer pays the worker, not the other way around. So, when pay-to-play opportunities pop up, that’s a big red flag. In such scenarios, scammers claim you need to invest money to pay for training.

Alleged employers who ask for personal information may be no better. Giving them numbers for Social Security, bank accounts, passports, and so on can give them all the information they need to hijack your accounts, or even forge a driver’s license or passport.

Older Americans can be particularly at risk, since these fake jobs invite them to work from home—an ideal scenario for many in retirement.

Some telltale signs of illegitimate jobs:

  • There’s little information on the company.
  • The job is too good to be true—the salary is extremely high or the perks are overly generous.
  • The employer is overly eager to hire, possibly even pressuring you to accept the job.
  • The listing contains misspelled words and bad punctuation.

Keep in mind that fake jobs can still appear on legitimate job boards. To help verify a genuine offer, look for a company website and social media. And get in touch with someone else from the company to get more information.

Grandparent scams

Latino adults were victimized by grandparent scams more than any other kind, a new AARP survey found.

Usually, this scam goes one of two ways. One scenario: Someone impersonates a panicked grandchild via digital message and claims to be in trouble and needing money immediately. The other situation: The perpetrator claims to be a public defender or jailer calling on behalf of the grandchild.

The best advice for avoiding this type of scam, says the Federal Communications Commission, is immediately hang up on any suspicious-sounding phone call. And if you have caller ID and don't recognize an incoming phone number, let it go to voicemail.

If you do wind up in a conversation, the FCC adds, never feel pressured to supply information or to send money quickly.

Charity scams

Adults over 50 with a decent nest egg may be targeted by scammers, since they can afford to give some away. The trick is to make sure their donations go to real charitable organizations—or at least real charities that direct this income toward actually helping people in need, rather than to the charity organizers.

Know that charity frauds can find victims through email, social media, and phone calls. Also, some scammers may play copycat and give themselves names similar to legitimate charities.

A few tips:

  • Research possible charities.
  • Don’t donate through cash, gift card, virtual currency, or—in particular—wire transfer (a scam giveaway). Always pay by check or with credit card.
  • Keep a record of donations and make sure you don’t accidentally sign up for recurring donations.
  • Don’t allow yourself to be rushed into making a donation.

Also, keep in mind: Guaranteeing sweepstakes winnings in exchange for a donation is not only a scam, it’s illegal.


Scams preying on lonely hearts reached a record $304 million in losses in 2020, according to the Federal Trade Commission. That’s up some 50 percent from 2019.

Here are warning signs that supposed soulmates may be seeking more than just love.

Those reaching out say they’re:

  • Living/traveling/working outside the U.S.
  • In the military
  • Working on an oil rig
  • A doctor with an international organization

They’ll claim they need money to pay for:

  • Visa/travel documents
  • plane ticket/travel expenses
  • surgery/medical expenses
  • gambling debts

As with the other frauds mentioned here, dealing with such potential scammers involves taking the same kind of precautions:

  • Never send money through wire transfer or via gift cards.
  • Never send money to someone you haven’t met in person.
  • Pay attention if family members are concerned about your love interest.

The AARP Foundation is working to forge bold, innovative solutions that help vulnerable older adults to build economic opportunity and social connection. To find community near you, click here.

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