This is the second in a series of articles about financial exploitation of older adults related to the coronavirus pandemic. Learn more about elder justice.
The first article in this series was published in March 2021 and explored the most recent Federal Trade Commission (FTC) data on elder exploitation (through the fourth quarter of 2020). That piece made the case for a data-driven approach by governments and civil society in confronting financial exploitation of older adults (defined as those 60 and older), a threat that has become more pronounced in the U.S. during the coronavirus pandemic.
Since the last article, great progress has been made in overcoming the public health emergency brought about by COVID-19. An ambitious vaccination program has made significant headway in protecting the public from the disease, and infection and death rates in the country have been significantly reduced; however, as things currently stand, the national rate for full vaccination is under 50%, and the Delta variant, a new and dangerous strain of the virus, is causing growing concern among American public health experts as it spreads rapidly both globally and in parts of the U.S. The emerging peril of this variant is serious enough that at least one major vaccine producer has begun developing a booster shot to address it.
As the summer concludes and the cooler months of fall and winter approach, the nation must be prepared for the possibility that public health advances made so far could be stalled or even reversed, once again leading to the heightened physical isolation of older adults resulting from government-mandated restrictions and voluntary social distancing. The possible return of this socio-economic dynamic may further embolden bad actors seeking to take advantage of older adults’ reliance on online resources to maintain contact with the world during the pandemic.
Even taking the optimistic view that there are only better days ahead, the world has forever been changed in terms of how individuals interact with education, business, and various other spheres of daily life. Trends that developed during the pandemic, from online grocery shopping and other online commerce to remote work, home fitness, distance education, and online social interactions, among others, are expected to endure in a post-COVID world. Older adults, who may face greater physical mobility and transportation challenges, have benefited from these new technological advances. But even as their quality of life may improve through technology, their exposure to financial exploitation also increases.
Considering these realities, older adults, their caregivers, and concerned family members should be prepared to use all available tools to guard against this persistent danger. This article will survey some of the resources available to citizens to protect themselves from swindlers who operate online as well as those who operate through the two other primary communication channels: telephone and U.S. mail.
As discussed in the first article in this series, online contact was the leading means overall of targeting older adults, particularly those aged 60 to 69, for scams in the pandemic era. From “post-vaccine survey” scams via email that seek to entice potential victims into providing sensitive personal information or a payment on the promise of cash or prizes, to romance scams carried out on authentic social media or dating sites, the online realm provides the easiest access to potential victims and a veil of anonymity for the perpetrators, making identifying and prosecuting them a daunting task.
Much online financial exploitation of older adults originates in email, most notably through phishing scams that seek to trick targets into divulging important personal information or log-in credentials for financial institutions holding their accounts. Thus, protecting email accounts should be the first line of defense.
Today, private email accounts are inundated by incoming mail ranging from legitimate messages from friends and family, account-related email, and promotional email from businesses with whom the user has engaged to malicious spam emails, which are often fraudulent. Email services like Gmail already have built-in anti-spam technology that can detect large volumes of spam emails and direct them to a folder designed to isolate them. However, their systems do not stop all spam emails, and the larger the volume of legitimate emails a user receives, the more difficult it is to discern the smaller number of spam emails that make it past spam filters and co-mingle with legitimate emails. This fact may prove especially discouraging for older adults who may not check email as frequently and may have to sift through many messages to distinguish between the good and the bad.
To address this, a user should unsubscribe from all legitimate emails that are no longer desired or necessary. This will substantially reduce the total volume of emails received daily. A user may have dozens of email subscriptions and find such a prospect overwhelming. The good news is that the initial effort to unsubscribe can be carried out en masse with a few clicks of the mouse or taps of a smartphone or tablet screen. Once this has been accomplished, the user can simply implement a streamlined maintenance plan to unsubscribe from future legitimate emails that are no longer desired or necessary.
NortonLifeLock provides instructions on how to deal with spam emails that make it past the built-in spam filters of familiar email services ranging from Gmail to Outlook, as well as how to unsubscribe en masse or individually from legitimate emails that are no longer desired. For users looking for app-oriented solutions that include free versions, Chuck (for iOS) and Unroll.Me (for iOS and Android) provide easy, user-friendly means of quickly paring down incoming emails to manageable volumes that make it easier to identify malicious emails that make it past spam filters.
Turning to the internet, when it comes to scams involving individuals adopting false identities online (e.g., romance scams), if the scammer has provided a photograph that they claim to be theirs, a reverse image search is a tool that can help confirm or disprove that claim. Google’s image search feature allows users to upload an image and search it against millions of images found online to see if the image is associated with another identity.
With respect to fraudulent websites, particularly in the realm of online shopping, Fakespot’s technology helps consumers identify scam websites and fake online reviews of products being sold by scammers.
While online contact was the leading means overall of targeting older adults for scams, telephone contact was a close second overall and was the leading means among adults 70 and older, perhaps attributable to their lesser level of engagement online. The fraudster may pose as a federal government worker looking for personal information or payment to get you a (non-existent) national vaccine certificate or as an IRS agent or trying to help you get a pandemic-related relief payment. The advantages of speaking to a live target while disguising the origin of the call through phone number “spoofing” technology makes this method one that cannot be overlooked even as the online world increasingly displaces the telephone in daily interactions.
The first line of defense is to have all cell phone and landline numbers registered with the FTC’s National Do Not Call Registry. The next line of defense is to take advantage of the proprietary tools offered by each of the major phone carriers to significantly reduce the volume of scam calls that reach their customers. These resources are in addition to commercial smartphone apps like RoboKiller that help stop robocalls, along with features built into the operating systems of smartphones by their manufacturers (iOS and Android) .
While physical mail has waned over time as a source of scams, it has not yet been completely abandoned by confidence tricksters, and pandemic-related scams that utilize U.S. mail have been no exception. Much like email, the sheer volume of junk mail received in physical mail boxes makes it challenging for the recipient to separate the legitimate from the malicious. Also, much like email, there are tools that can help reduce the volume of junk mail being delivered by your postal worker.
The Direct Marketing Association’s (DMA) consumer website enables you, at a cost of $2, to opt-out of most physical junk mail from marketers for ten years, letting you choose what you do and do not want to receive. (The website has a feature that helps you receive less unsolicited marketing email, as well.) Additionally, optoutprescreen.com allows you to opt-out of pre-screened credit card and insurance offers delivered in the U.S. mail for either five years or permanently. More information about these two services can be found on the FTC’s website.
The pandemic period has shown that the risks posed to older adults by financial exploitation continue to evolve, and so do the tools designed to counter those risks. Continuing education of older adults is the cornerstone of establishing a long-lasting strategy for protecting the wealth they have built over a lifetime. To that end, the AARP Older Adults Technology Services project, Senior Planet, is a good starting point for older adults seeking to expand their knowledge when it comes to personal tech issues. In addition to providing free educational resources, Senior Planet also provides individual assistance (available by phone or by email) to older adults encountering technology issues in daily life.