Adults 65 and up are online and enjoying social media more than ever before. Meanwhile, fraud losses from social media scams have soared to record heights — with seniors carrying the heaviest financial burden. So, how can you help yourself or an older loved one play it safe while networking online? Try these common-sense safety tips, like only chatting online with people you know in real life.

According to data from the Pew Research Center, nearly half of Americans 65 and older say they’re active on at least one social media platform, and 73% say they use the internet

That’s no surprise: there’s so much for everyone to enjoy online. Social sites in particular make it easy for people of all ages to learn new things, find community, and keep in touch with family and friends — which can all help people stay healthy and happy as they age. Still, spending more time online may have its downsides, including an increased risk of exposure to fraud.  

According to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), losses to fraud that initiated on social media platforms soared to $770 million in 2021. That’s nearly triple the amount reported the previous year, and an 18-fold increase from 2017. 

And that amount only includes the cases of fraud that were reported to the FTC or its Consumer Sentinel Network, which experts say are just the tip of the iceberg.

So, how does this concern seniors and their loved ones? Unfortunately, when scammers con older adults, they tend to steal a high dollar amount. According to data from the FTC, while young adults fall victim to digital fraud more frequently, older Americans carry heavier losses. For example, in 2021, when people between the ages of 20 and 39 experienced fraud, the median loss was $500. For people 80 and older, the median loss was three times that amount.

With that in mind, we asked Marilyn Mott, a community outreach director with the Better Business Bureau, to share about what older adults can do to stay safe when they log on. 

Through her work educating older adults and their caregivers about fraud, and through the Better Business Bureau’s investigative scam studies and Scam Tracker initiative, Mott has seen firsthand how scammers work online — and how they target seniors in particular. Read on for her expert advice.

If you’re a senior, be aware of common social media scams

Mott advises people of all ages to be aware of these common scam types that often originate on social media: 

  • Online shopping scams: In this ruse, scammers advertise incredible deals on social media — think brand-name gear at a highly discounted rate. If you buy, the fraudsters take your money, but never deliver the goods — or what they send isn’t as advertised. 

  • Investment scams: If a new online “friend” shares a can’t-miss opportunity to invest in something — say, cryptocurrency — it’s almost certainly bogus. 

  • Romance scams: If a virtual “friend” turned love interest is suddenly in urgent need of a “loan”, it’s safe to assume you’re being scammed. 

  • Vacation scams: This con is frequently aimed at retired older adults: fraudsters advertise low-cost lodging or experiences via vacation rental sites. But the accommodations either don’t exist, or belong to someone else. 

  • Lottery or sweepstakes scams: These can target you via pop-up (a small window that appears when you’re browsing a site) or through a direct message or comment on social media sites like Instagram and Facebook. They often require an upfront payment to claim your “winnings,” which never arrive.

Fast Facts

Social media scams and seniors

According to FTC data, people lose big to social media scams — and older adults are hit particularly hard. 

  • Losses to fraud that initiated on social media platforms soared to $770 million in 2021.

  • That’s nearly triple the amount reported the previous year, and an 18-fold increase from 2017.

  • When older people are scammed, they tend to lose big: in 2021, people 80 and up who reported losses to online fraud were out a median amount of $1,500.

  • That’s three times the amount lost by people between the ages of 20 to 39.

Know the red flags, too

Regardless of the type of scam, the warning signs are typically the same. The scammer initiates outreach, whether that’s by friend request, direct message, or through an ad. There’s often a sense of urgency or desperation — and in many cases, the fraudster employs emotional manipulation via chat conversations drawn out over the course of days, weeks, or even months. 

Regardless of the ploy, fraudsters typically ask for money to be sent via wire, through gift cards, or as cryptocurrency (though sometimes they accept credit card, debit card, check, or cash). The FTC warns that anyone who asks you to make a payment with a gift card is a scammer. Requests to wire money or pay via crypto should be treated with similar skepticism.

Seniors, scams, and identity theft

Sometimes the intent of these scams is to steal your money. Criminals may see older adults as ideal targets, because they often have fixed incomes or retirement savings. And sadly, as seniors report losing high dollar amounts to online fraud, the financial stakes can be high.

Scammers may also aim to gain sensitive information such as your name, address, and Social Security number. Those details are highly valuable to criminals because they can be used to commit identity fraud — like taking out a new line of credit in your name, for example. 

That’s why it’s so important for people of all ages to be cautious with personal information online. Even seemingly innocuous links on social media — such as a survey or personality quiz — can be geared toward collecting personal information like your name and birthdate.

How to fight elder fraud and stay connected

Unfortunately, “All social media sites can be a haven for scammers,” warns Mott. If you’re active on social networking sites like Facebook, Instagram, or LinkedIn; dating websites, like Match or eHarmony; or even vacation rental sites like Airbnb or Vrbo — the risk for fraud is there.

The good news? If you’re an Allstate Identity Protection family plan holder and you or someone you love is experiencing elder fraud, you can call our Customer Care line 24/7. 

Our representatives can help determine if something was a scam, report fraud to authorities, and navigate the recovery process should identity theft have occurred. 

In addition, there are simple things anyone can do to avoid becoming a victim:  

  1. Trust your gut. If a discount or a random “prize” you’ve supposedly won feels too good to be true, it probably is — so don’t engage with that ad or message. Likewise, if someone messages you a link that looks suspicious or random, do not click.

  2. Be vigilant about your privacy settings. Be sure only your “friends” or “followers” can see what you’re sharing. Even then, be mindful not to overshare. Some personal details, such as your birth date and address, can be used to commit fraud. 

  3. Mingle with caution. Only engage with people you know in real life — or reputable brands that you trust — on social media. Ignore friend requests or direct messages from strangers.

  4. Shop safely online. If you click to buy something that’s advertised on a social network, make sure you land at a website for a reputable retail brand. Before you enter payment details, look for https:// (instead of http://) in a site’s URL (the “s” stands for Secure Sockets Layer, a security encryption code).

Lastly, it’s worth noting that screen time for seniors is way up — and while there’s lots to do online, nothing beats a good old fashioned face-to-face connection. 

“Many communities have senior centers, many colleges offer continuing education for older adults, and most care facilities can help you get involved socially,” Mott says. “Your community is there to help you — just ask!”