Phone and Internet Safety for Seniors

Protect yourself from financial frauds and scams

As our aging population grows, and as people are living longer lives due to advanced medical treatments, one concern of people with aging parents is how to keep them safe.

Warrenton Lifestyle met with Lt. Richard MacWelch and Michelle Wright of the Fauquier County Sheriff’s Office to discuss safety and security of senior citizens today. According to Lt. MacWelch and Wright, a significant threat to seniors is their vulnerability to financial frauds and scams. 

Seniors face the same safety threats every day that the rest of us do; the difference is in how they perceive their surroundings and their world. “Seniors are very trusting,” said Wright. “They always want to see the good in people, and they don’t want to bother anyone by asking for help. Sometimes they are too proud to ask for help, or don’t want their family or others to think they’re incapable of handling their own affairs.”

Seniors have spent most of their lives without the internet, and grew up in a time without aggressive telephone or door-to-door marketing, and as such they are particularly vulnerable to internet and phone scams. Trained from an early age to be polite on the telephone, they have a hard time saying no. They are usually not able to discern when callers, or people contacting them by email, are trying to, best case scenario, sell them something they don’t need, all the way to the worst case scenario, steal their identity for the purpose of financial fraud.

It’s important to understand,” explained Wright, “that it takes very little information for someone to get started on stealing your identity. Even giving out your birthdate puts you at risk. If a caller has your phone number, he also has your address. If he then obtains your birth date, he has enough to go a lot further into obtaining even more information about you.” 

The results of fraud can be devastating. If a criminal gains enough personal information from you, he can do anything from buy a cell phone to empty your bank accounts to apply for credit cards or even a car loan or a home mortgage.

“Phone scammers prey upon the elderly. They know what they’re doing, they know exactly what to say, which tone of voice to take, whether to be friendly and polite or forceful and threatening. They can assess the vulnerability of the senior and manipulate them into giving out information. They are experts at it.” said Lt. MacWelch.

Some common types of fraud:

  • Selling something you don’t need, such as car warranties, extra insurance, mortgage refinancing, loans, etc. 
  • Bogus charities asking for money
  • Investment schemes
  • Sweepstakes and lottery scams telling you you’ve won a prize
  • The grandparent scam in which the caller pretends to be a grandchild who needs to be bailed out of jail. 
  • A call from someone claiming to be the government or Social Security or law enforcement insisting you owe money which must be paid immediately.
  • Attempts to gain personal and financial information. 
  • Medical miracle cures or anti aging products
  • Prescription scams: a caller or website selling prescriptions at a vastly discounted rate from another country. These prescriptions may not be real medications at all. 
  • Calls “confirming information”
  • Phishing scams, which are emails that lead to a bogus site — for instance, a site that looks a lot like your bank account site — for the purpose of extracting information, usernames, and passwords. 
  • Home Services scams and frauds. This includes people coming to your door and offering tree services, lawn services, or home inspections/repairs, often demanding payment or deposit in advance. 

Seniors should follow the following precautions:

  • Do not assume that everyone who calls you is honest and calling with legitimate business.
  • Remember, you have the right to simply say “no” or hang up the phone if a caller is making you uncomfortable or pressuring you.
  • Realize that if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. 
  • Never respond to any sales or financial inquiry calls immediately. Take the time to think about the call, consider the information, and, most importantly, consult with someone trustworthy, such as a family member. There is nothing that will come in by a phone call that has to be acted on immediately. Don’t fall for “you have to act now to receive this special rate.”
  • Never give ANY personal or financial information out to anyone over the phone or internet. Callers may offer you “discounted payment plans” for bogus purchases if you authorize a monthly direct debit from your account. Giving that information means that they have all the information they need to empty your account.  
  • Beware of calls that “only want to confirm information.” The caller may identify himself as a representative from Medicare, and tell you there’s a problem with your account. “He may then ask you to read off the information on your Medicare card so he can confirm that the records match. “You have no idea how much personal information is connected to your Medicare number,” explained Shelly. “Seniors need to realize that Medicare, the government, or the IRS will never make that kind of phone call.” 
  • Conduct most transactions with a credit card instead of a debit card, and protect your PIN carefully. Always use the same credit card so it’s easy to keep track of. Check your statements carefully, and contact the credit card company immediately if anything seems off.
  • Do not hire home services contractors who come to your door or contact you by phone. Always choose contractors by recommendations from family or other trusted friends. 

Beware of mail fraud

Just like phone and internet, not everything that comes in the mail is legitimate. Seniors tend not to realize that, with computer graphics today, it is possible for scammers to create a document that looks very real, even down to the shapes of the letters and logos. If you receive mail asking for money or personal information, investigate before replying. However, it is important NOT to verify the suspicious document by calling the number provided on the suspicious document itself — that will only connect you to someone involved in the scam. If the communication is from a well known organization, verify the number on the official website or ask someone trustworthy to check it for you. If it is not from a known organization, ignore it.

Important facts

Government agencies — Social Security, Medicare, the IRS, and law enforcement — do not perform business by phone or request personal or financial information. They will notify you by mail in the event they need to communicate. 

There is no legitimate business or organization that does business with gift cards. Period. If a caller requests you purchase gift cards from a store and send them in or read them the card information, they are a fraud. Unfortunately, sometimes seniors confuse gift cards with credit cards, since they are the same size and made of the same material and include account numbers on them. 

Accept the fact that people lie to seniors to get money, both on the phone and by mail. Simply because an envelope comes in the mail with heartrending, emotional stories and adorable photos of puppies or needy children doesn’t mean the sender has any intention of benefitting either children or animals with any money you send them. If you’d like to give to a charity, give locally to one in your community that you’ve checked out, or donate to a large, verifiable charity where you can be sure your donation ends up where it is intended. 

The most important thing for seniors to understand is that the world is full of fraud and scams, and they are particularly vulnerable. Therefore, they need to rely heavily on a trustworthy family or friends when navigating phone calls, emails, and mail which may be illegitimate. Instead of giving information over the phone, take a phone number to return the call after you have asked someone trustworthy for advice. Put suspicious mail aside for your son or daughter to go through. Asking for help or advice doesn’t mean you’re not capable of handling your own affairs; it indicates that you’re savvy enough to recognize threats, and consult with someone with more information to avoid potential problems, much like you would consult a doctor about a medical issue. The consequences of financial fraud can be devastating, and can include losing all your financial assets. Take steps to protect yourself.   


In the event that personal information is lost — whether by loss or theft, or by fraud — take steps to freeze your credit reports and bank accounts immediately, advised Wright. Contact your bank directly for help with your accounts, and contact these three important credit bureaus to protect your credit: Equifax (800-525-6285), Experian (800-397-3742), and Transunion (800-680-7289). 

Report the fraud to the Fauquier County Sheriff’s Office (540 347-3300) so law enforcement staff are aware of it and can help prevent it in the future.  

Pam Kamphuis
About Pam Kamphuis 95 Articles
Pam Kamphuis is an editor and writer for Piedmont Virginian Magazine and Piedmont Lifestyle Magazines.

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