Scams can cause extreme financial and emotional distress to victims and their families. With technology, scammers have become more creative in accessing their victims by offering quick clicks and false credibility. Even young teens that navigate effortlessly online have a hard time distinguishing legitimate situations from scams. To help you and your family avoid becoming the victims of a scammer, I interviewed “William”* who shared his mother’s story. She was an educated professional that fell victim to multiple scams over five years. You won’t want to miss the true story about what happened to her. If your family hasn’t taken steps for increased awareness and cybersecurity, you’ll want to check out our Cybersecurity & Red Flags supplement. The perfect compliment to our free Connected Family Agreement, you can take the extra steps you need to protect your loved ones right now. Our guide offers tips to avoid hacking, scamming, malware, and phishing and is a must-have for today’s modern family. Today’s GKIS article shares the story of an elderly woman victimized by scammers, the types of scams to look out for, and tips on how to avoid becoming a victim yourself.
*Names were changed to protect the privacy of the victims.
What are scams?
A scam is a dishonest scheme to cheat someone or steal money. With the help of technology, scammers have been able to target their victims in more creative, easier, and faster ways than ever before. According to an FBI report, 2020 scams resulted in a loss of over 4.2 billion dollars. With more baby boomers retiring and the pandemic resulting in more at-hone isolation, I suspect those losses rose in the last few years.[1,2]
Who Scammers Target
Although anyone can become a scam victim, research has shown that scammers tend to target kids, teens, and the elderly. A study conducted by the University of Iowa confirmed that a certain area of the prefrontal cortex of the brain is responsible for processing information and solving problems – tasks that help people consider whether information is true or not. Young people tend to be vulnerable to scams because this part of the brain is still developing, and older individuals are vulnerable when they demonstrate poor technological fluency, are isolated, or suffer from a decline in problem solving ability.
The Story of William and His Mom
William is a middle-aged man who generously shared his story with us about his elderly mother, Mrs. Thorn, who was scammed out of tens of thousands of dollars over a five-year period. Despite his best efforts to protect and rescue her from the scammers, he struggled to keep her safe. Once one scammer got ahold of her and convinced her to send money, many other scammers started approaching her too. William suspects that the scams were somehow linked as if they shared her information with others. Below are some of the scams she fell victim to.
Different Types of Scams
William described his mother as a generous individual. She was a nurse in Japan during the 1950s, and, after she retired, she continued helping others by volunteering at church and other organizations. As she got older, she would receive postcards in the mail from different charities, a common scam targeted at elders. Although her income from social security and savings was not a lot, she began “donating” money to those she perceived as less fortunate than herself.
Piecing together what happened with his mom’s checking and bank documents, William found that she initially sent small amounts of money ranging from $5-10. Once the scammers had her on the hook, however, they would groom her for larger and larger “charitable” donations.
Another scam that William’s mother fell victim to was the lottery/sweepstakes scam, which also commonly targets elders. These types of scams claim that the victim has won a large amount of money or other prizes such as a new car. Once the victim is excited and eager to collect their prize, scammers require that they pay a fee or taxes. As the scammer reaches out with details, the victim often adopts an illusion of intimacy, meaning they feel they have a personal, caring relationship with the scammer. This false intimacy pulls the victim in deeper, often eliciting more and more personal information from the victim.
William confirmed that Mrs. Thorn spoke to the scammers about his efforts to block their access and protect her safety. Mrs. Thorn’s scammers not only instructed her not to tell anyone because it could be a nice surprise for her family, but they also offered specific suggestions on how to work around the safeguards her son put in place. They seemed to play on her wishes for independence and worked to create and escalate conflict between her and her son.
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Government Impersonation Scams
William noticed that some of the scams his mom was involved with may be linked with others. For instance, to pay the taxes of her “prize,” the scammer would set Mrs. Thorn up to talk to an “IRS agent.” These types of scams are known as government impersonation scams which are types of very popular imposter scams. According to the FBI, government impersonation scams typically involve the scammer impersonating a government official who threatens to arrest or prosecute victims unless they pay a fee. William shared that they even tried to trick him with false threats of prosecution and arrest unless he agreed to cooperate.
Dr. Bennett shared that immigrants can easily be targeted with this type of scam as well. She shared a story of a colleague who was a Chinese immigrant who worked as a software engineer. This victim’s scammer posed as a member of the Chinese government and threatened the safety of her family if she didn’t pay overdue fines. The scammer demanded that she not tell her friends and family and immediately pay. She lost over $150,000 that was never recovered before she realized she’d been scammed.
William explains that although his mother’s scams initially started by mail, they soon turned into phone calls. He allowed me access to his mother’s journal which included notes on the people she spoke to and what they had asked her to do. Her notes reveal that she would talk to the same people over and over and eventually trusted them more than her own family and friends. The scammers were very persuasive and would instruct her how to wire funds to unfamiliar places and people, even going so far as giving her directions to wiring locations that her son had not blocked yet. William spent countless hours visiting banks, local wiring locations, and friends begging them to not help his mom transfer money or provide transportation. Although he spoke to his mom many times, he found that the scammers would get to her anyway with relentless pressure and creative arguments.
Scammers have no limits.
It was not until William caught his mom almost wire transferring $200,000 that he finally got the information he needed to gain conservatorship over Mrs. Thorn. By then, the scammers had even instructed her to how to send money from q reverse mortgage loan on her home to complete the transaction!
William said the scammers had no shame and would even help her find ways to continue participating in the scams even after he took steps to stop them. He shared that they would pressure her with false deadlines and threats, making her so anxious that she would rush into performing workaround instructions. Her journal reflects moments of intense anxiety as she tried to complete the complex transactions.
To emphasize how far scammers would go, he shared that, after he lowered his mom’s allowance to $25 a week and there was not much to get from her anymore, they still tried one last thing – the 976 phone scam. According to William, this is a scam where you call back a number with an area code of 976 and get charged a huge per-minute fee. The longer the scammer keeps the victim on the phone confused and anxious, the more money the scammer gets.
Avoid Being Next
William shared that his mom was scammed out of about $70,000 before it stopped. If it was not for her son’s compassionate and tireless commitment to protect her, it could have been far more. Other popular scams include shopping scams and job opportunity scams. If you are worried that bad actors can access your family members, check out our Screen Safety Toolkit. Our resource guide is perfect for those that need smart tech tools for filtering, monitoring, and management.
Tips to Outsmart the Scammers
- Contact your phone carrier and internet service provider to research helpful tools for blocking unwanted and unknown calls, texts, and emails.
- Remember, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
- Don’t act immediately, take a moment to research the situation and talk to someone who you trust.
- Don’t give out personal information like your name, date of birth, social security number, address, or usernames or passwords. Legitimate organizations will not text, call, or email you to obtain private information.
- Don’t complete forms from an email link. Instead, go directly to the website of the company you are dealing with and complete the business from there.
- Call the company directly to confirm the request was legitimate before you offer information or complete forms. The IRS communicates through US mail, not by telephone or email. Call 800-366-4484 to report IRS-related phishing attempts and fraud.
- Be sure to keep up with device updates for security patches, delete unused and unwanted apps, and change your passwords frequently.
- Review your credit card statements regularly to catch unauthorized charges and periodically review your credit report.
- Consider freezing your social security number for new financial transactions with Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion to escape identity theft.
- Use your telephone services provider’s spam filters and add your phone number to the National Do Not Call Registry.
- Lastly, Google “scams” or a quote from any communication that may be a scam to learn more about the common scams that may target you.
Scams are no joke. Once you become a victim, serious damage can occur that can take years and years to repair. Check out our other GKIS article Child Identity Theft is on the Rise. Protect Your Family Against Cybercrime, to learn more about how fraudulent purchases made with your private information can change your life
Here are some other related articles offered on our GKIS website for more information on hacking, scamming, malware, and phishing. Learn more about the dangers of online to be prepared for anything that comes your way.
If you are a victim of a scam, contact your local law enforcement and visit expert online resources such as
I’m the mom psychologist who will help you GetKidsInternetSafe.
Onward to More Awesome Parenting,
Tracy S. Bennett, Ph.D.
Mom, Clinical Psychologist, CSUCI Adjunct Faculty
Works Cited O’ Brien, S. (2021) Tech-savvy teens falling prey to online scams faster than their grandparents. CNBC Personal Finance. https://www.cnbc.com/2021/08/10/tech-savvy-teens-falling-prey-to-online-scams-faster-than-their-grandparents.html  FBI National Office. (2021) FBI Releases the Internet Crime Complaint Center 2020 Internet Crime Report, Including COVID-19 Scam Statistics. FBI.
https://www.fbi.gov/news/pressrel/press-releases/fbi-releases-the-internet-crime-complaint-center-2020-internet-crime-report-including-covid-19-scam-statistics#:~:text=The%20FBI’s%20Internet%20Crime%20Complaint,reported%20losses%20exceeding%20%244.2%20billion. Health 24. (2012) Why older people are more gullible. Health 24. https://www.news24.com/health24/Mental-Health/Brain/News/Why-older-people-are-more-gullible-20130210  FBI (n.d.) Scams and Safety: Elder Fraud. FBI. https://www.fbi.gov/scams-and-safety/common-scams-and-crimes/elder-fraud
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