Phone scams — or unsolicited calls or texts from criminals attempting to commit fraud — are common, and contribute significantly to cases of elder fraud. Here, you’ll find expert guidance to help older adults and their loved ones identify and avoid these scams. The number one tip? Do not answer calls from any unknown number. If fraudsters can’t reach you, they won’t be able to scam you out of money or personal information.
Phone scams are common — so much so that fraudsters may ring you more frequently than family members or friends.
They’re also effective: According to a recent report, Americans lost an estimated $29.8 billion to phone scams in 2021 alone.
Phone scams affect all age groups, but older Americans are financially impacted by fraud most acutely — likely, say experts, because they have more money to steal. Data from the Federal Reserve shows that the median household net worth in the United States is $121,700 — but for older adults between the ages of 55 and 64, it’s almost double that amount.
Unfortunately, that makes older adults attractive scam targets. Cases of elder fraud, or the financial exploitation of seniors, have soared in recent years. According to the FBI, seniors lose $3 billion to fraud annually.
The good news is that as an Allstate Identity Protection family plan participant, you don’t have to fight elder fraud alone. You can add relatives 65+ to your account — even if they’re not under your roof or wallet.
In addition, we’re teaming up with the Better Business Bureau to bring our family plan holders guidance on common fraud types that impact older people, beginning with today’s article on phone scams.
Fraudsters may contact victims in a variety of ways (including email, social media, snail mail, and in-person solicitation). But according to Marilyn Mott, a community outreach director with the Better Business Bureau: “The number one form of communication any scammer uses is the phone.”
Common phone scams and red flags
Phone scams can ring in as robocalls (or automated recordings), live calls from a fraudster, or text messages. Regardless of the form the communication takes, the scammer’s end goal is the same: obtain you or your loved one’s personal information to commit identity theft, defraud you out of money, or both.
Among the most common phone scams are government imposter scams, in which the caller pretends to be calling on behalf of the IRS, Social Security Administration, Medicare, or another government agency. The scammer typically uses intimidation or scare tactics, such as threatening deportation or arrest if a fake bill isn’t paid immediately.
Another common ruse, the “Grandparents Scam,” relies on emotional manipulation. The scammer pretends to be a younger family member in trouble — like a grandchild, niece, or great nephew — and asks for money to be sent immediately, typically via wire.
Requesting that money be wired — or sent in the form of a gift card — is a big red flag. Credit card payments can often be contested. But money that’s wired or sent via gift card is much harder to recover if fraud should occur. It can also be challenging to recover a payment made with a debit card, cash, or check, so the safest bet is to use a credit card.
Another red flag is urgency. For example, in a lottery scam or a sweepstakes scam — in which the caller claims you have won a large sum of money or prize — the scammer often asks for an immediate payment (typically called a “processing fee” or “transfer fee”) for the winnings to be claimed.
3 ways to avoid phone scams
Register your phone number on the National Do Not Call list at donotcall.gov.
Robocalls can populate with a number that looks similar to your own. Don’t pick up: doing so will mark your number as “active,” encouraging future robocalls.
Know the red flags of a scam call — such as urgent and emotional pleas to wire money.
Protect yourself and your family
The good news? There are ways to proactively protect yourself and your older family members from phone scammers.
First things first: Register all land and mobile phone numbers on the National Do Not Call list at donotcall.gov to cut down on unsolicited calls. But know that doing so will not block all scam calls.
The best way to avoid being scammed is to never answer calls from numbers you do not know.
Scammers can manipulate the caller ID on both land and mobile lines, making it look as though the IRS or another government entity is calling. This ploy, known as caller ID spoofing, is used to build trust and fool people into answering the call. But remember: “The IRS will never call you directly,” says Mott. “They will communicate by sending you a letter and asking you to contact them.”
Robocalls can also populate with a number that looks similar to yours as an attempt to make it feel familiar. Resist the urge to pick up the call. Even if you don’t fall victim to the fraud, simply answering the phone will mark your number as “active,” encouraging future robocalls.
Make it a non-negotiable that you and your family members never provide payment or personal information over the phone (unless you intentionally called that person or organization). And keep up-to-date contact information for all family members and close friends.
Finally, talk as a family about next steps if someone should fall victim to a phone scam. Experts suspect that phone scams are underreported, especially among seniors, in part because being scammed may feel scary or embarrassing. But phone scams happen and they happen often. If you have been duped by a fraudster, you’re not alone — and reporting the problem to the Federal Trade Commission could ultimately help someone else.
If you suspect that you’ve been scammed, or if you’re concerned that an older family member may have fallen victim, let us know. We fully remediate identity theft, and when it comes to scams, our Identity Specialists can provide guidance and advice on what to do next.
When in doubt, remember this tip from Mott: “Not answering is a great way to get them to stop calling.”