BBB Warns of Scams That Target Seniors

May 9, 2014

Everyone must be alert to scams, but senior citizens can be more vulnerable. Seniors are often the targets of fraud and financial crimes because they’re easy to reach at home, are often too polite to hang up on calls from strangers, and they’re more likely to have nest eggs.

The Better Business Bureau Serving Wisconsin is warning seniors and adult children of senior parents to be on the lookout for, and report scams that may target them. The prevalence of scams targeting elders makes extra vigilance crucial.

The following are common scams designed to trick consumers, especially the elderly, into giving up their money, property or personal information.

The Grandparent Scam – Scammers call an older person and say something such as, “Hi Grandma, do you know who this is?” Responding with a name will allow the scammer to be able to establish a false identity, then ask for money to solve some unexpected problem. They may say “I’m stranded on spring break” or “I’ve been arrested” or “hospitalized” and need money for medical purposes, to get out of jail or back home. They’ll generally ask for payments be paid via Western Union, MoneyGram, Money Pak cards, or other untraceable methods. They’ll also usually state that his or her voice sounds different due to the accident or crisis, and ask that the grandparent not tell their parents.

Computer Repair Scam – Swindlers call claiming to be from Microsoft or other companies “tech support” departments, informing you that you have a computer virus and offers to fix it remotely, for a fee. Instead, he gains remote control access of your computer, making the computer programs no longer accessible.

Door-to-Door Sales Scams – People go door-to-door and offer extraordinarily low prices for home improvement work, often stating the offer is only good at that moment. Some of the door-to-door sales the BBB receives complaints about each year include asphalt paving, roofing, tree stump removal, storm damage, and sales of products including vacuum cleaners and magazine subscriptions. Door-to-door salespeople are often transient, and if you’re unsatisfied with the work or don’t receive the magazines you paid for in advance, there may be no way of finding them to get your money back. Check on all companies before doing business with the BBB, first. Take time to think about the offer; compare prices, shop locally, and ensure you know where the company is located should you have a problem later.

Charitable Donations Scams – Con artists disguised as being with a charity will ask for donations or money for raffles. You may think you’re helping those in need, but in reality you are helping crooks fill their pockets. Make donations only to charities that you are familiar with, and that you’ve checked their report with the BBB first. The BBB maintains reports on local and national charities, and those charities must meet certain standards including being transparent about where the collected money is going. You can check a BBB report at or by calling 414-847-6000 or toll-free within Wisconsin at 1-800-273-1002.

Counterfeit Check Scams – While there are many variations of the fake check scam, scammers will often send a legitimate-looking check and ask you to deposit it into your bank account and wire a portion back to them. They may say that you’ve won money but need to pay a portion in taxes, or they offer you a “mystery shopping” job and say they’re paying you in advance, but a particular dollar amount needs to be returned and “you keep the rest.” In reality, the money you wired cannot be returned to you. If you deposit the check and withdraw any portion of it, you’ll be responsible for paying back your bank the entire amount plus any overdraft fees.

Health Care Fraud Scams – Scammers will call or e-mail misrepresenting they are Medicare or insurance representatives, stating they will be sending a new card or announcing a new plan and stating personal information is necessary. Sometimes, they’ll falsely state that an initial payment needs to be made for the new card or plan. Scammers are simply attempting to get personal or financial information and scam you out of money.

Telemarketing Fraud – Telemarketing scams usually involve offers of free or low-cost products or devices, bogus health care products (such as supplemental insurance or prescription cards), and inexpensive vacation offers. Those age 60 and older and those that live alone are special targets. Never give personal or financial information over the phone to someone you don’t know, and make sure you are registered with both the local (Datcp) at 1-866-9NOCALL and national (FTC) 1-888-382-1222 Do Not Call lists. Report soliciting or suspicious phone calls to the agencies. In most cases, you don’t need to know who called you or where they’re located, you only need the phone number to report.

Funeral & Cemetery Scams – Scammers read obituaries and call a grieving widow or widower claiming the deceased had an outstanding bill with them and then try to extort money from relatives to settle the fake debt. In another tactic, disreputable funeral homes will attempt to capitalize on family members’ unfamiliarity with the cost of funeral services to add unnecessary charges to the bill or attempt to sell high-end products or services.

Investment Schemes – During the senior years, it’s typical to plan for retirement and make financial plans. Scammers target seniors at this time because they know they’re retired and making plans to safeguard finances for their later years. Be wary of pyramid schemes (like Bernie Madoff’s), investment schemes promising quick and plentiful returns, advance-fee schemes, and foreign letter fraud schemes. Remember, If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

Travel Scams – Travel offers come by mail, phone, fax, and e-mail and offer cheap rates, freebies, and promotions for travel packages or vacation clubs accompanied by “free” restaurant gift certificates, gas cards, or other gifts for attending presentations. These presentations obligate you to sit through high-pressure sales pitches. Know that it is unlikely you will get a refund once you sign a contract. Also, be especially wary of timeshare sales, resale, and timeshare donation offers.
The BBB wants you to be aware that scammers often look for people who have already been scammed in the past. So, if you’ve been a victim once, chances are you’ll be called again by other scammers.

It’s extremely important to report the fraud you fell victim to, or even the pitch you received but didn’t fall for. Older Americans are least likely to report a fraud because they may be too embarrassed or feel ashamed if family members or friends find out. Reporting the situation to the proper authorities and agencies can prevent others from losing money, can help start an investigation into the scam, and will prompt agencies to properly alert others and work toward getting the scheme shut down.
Better Business Bureaus share information and offer FREE reports on thousands of companies and charities nationwide and throughout Canada.

BBB’s work together and with law enforcement to share information and investigate. You can file a complaint, post a personal customer review, report a questionable advertisement, obtain free reports, tips and information, report scams, and sign up to receive free scam alerts and press releases. Go to our website at, call our public line at 414-847-6000 or toll-free in Wisconsin at 1-800-273-1002.

For more information or further inquiries, contact the Wisconsin BBB at or 414-847-6000 (metro Milwaukee), 920-734-4352 (Appleton), 608-268-2221 (Madison) or 1-800-273-1002 (elsewhere in Wisconsin). Consumers also can find more information about how to protect themselves from scams by following the Wisconsin BBB on Twitter, Facebook and You Tube.

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