Elder Fraud: Protecting Our Seniors from Scams


This is the first in a four-part series focusing on elder fraud. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) reported that 88,262 victims of fraud age 60 and older suffered $3.1 billion in losses in 2022, an 84% increase from the prior year, with each victim losing an average of $35,101. Native Chula Vistan and current Bonita resident Elizabeth Cox is Immediate Past President of the FBI San Diego Citizens Academy Alumni Association. In that capacity, she is committed to sharing information that prepares and prevents seniors from becoming victims of scams. More information and resources are available at SDElderFraud.com.

September 10 marked Grandparent’s Day, a day to honor our beloved elders. The commemoration also highlighted the urgent need to address the rising menace of fraud— specifically the scams targeting seniors. “Elder fraud affects our most vulnerable citizens,” said FBI San Diego Field Office Special Agent in Charge Stacey Moy. “In many instances, someone has had their entire life savings stolen and they’re embarrassed to speak out about it. We want victims to know that they are not alone, and they should report it to law enforcement as soon as possible because we want to get the bad people responsible for these crimes off the street.” The Grandparent Scam is one of the most heart-wrenching instances of fraud and it’s had an alarming spike in recent years.


Understanding the Grandparent Scam

This malicious scam usually starts with a seemingly innocuous phone call. A scammer, posing as a distressed grandchild, weaves a believable narrative about being in trouble — perhaps they’ve had an accident, been arrested, or are stranded abroad. They plead for immediate financial assistance, typically begging the grandparent not to tell their parents (the grandparent’s own adult child). The grandchild is in trouble and only the grandparent can help them! Quickly the call is often handed off to scammer posing as the grandchild’s attorney. They will “conveniently” have a money mule (posing as a bail bonds person) in the area to immediately pick up large amounts of cash from the grandparent’s front door. By emotionally manipulating the elder, exploiting their love and concern for their family, scammers make a quick, often substantial, financial gain. If the money comes easily, the grandchild’s “crime” may escalate— perhaps the car accident “victim” has terrible injuries or was a pregnant woman who lost the child — and the “attorney” calls the grandparent back to collect more money for an increase in
bail or legal fees. This is all done with immense urgency and the grandparent’s good intentions to help their grandchild are taken advantage of, and decades of savings are wiped away with a few large bank withdrawals.


What does a grandparent scam sound like?

In May 2023, 60 Minutes aired a segment that highlighted what it sounds like to be targeted by a grandparent scam. The CBS weekly program unveiled the intricate and deceptive strategies used by fraudsters. Far from being isolated instances of opportunism, these scams have attracted organized crime rings, who see them as lucrative ventures and often have international call centers cranking out scammy calls to granny. The segment shed light on how these criminals use technology— including social media— to gather detailed information, making their impersonation even more convincing.

Guarding against future fraud

  • Stay informed: Knowledge remains our most powerful shield. Make sure seniors and their families understand the nature and workings of such scams. Discussing the Grandparent Scam with elderly loved ones can make them more cautious about unsolicited calls requesting money
  • Verify first: If a senior receives a call from someone claiming to be a relative in distress, it’s critical to hang up and then dial the relative directly on a known number. Verification can nip most scams in the bud.
  • Safeguard personal information: Remind seniors of the dangers of sharing personal or
    financial data over the phone, especially if they didn’t initiate the call.
  • Foster open communication: Encourage elders to talk about any dubious calls or
    interactions they’ve experienced. Open conversations can catch and halt potential scams
    before they become disasters. Elder fraud victims are often embarrassed and worry about telling their adult children or caregivers when they’ve lost money, for fear of having access to their accounts taken away. Make it safe to have vulnerable conversations and state your intent to protect their assets for their enjoyment.
  • Harness technology: Introduce seniors to caller ID and its benefits. Encourage them to be wary of unknown or hidden numbers; if it’s an important call, a voice message will be left. Keep devices up to date with the latest security software for added protection.
  • Report any suspicions: If a call or transaction feels off, report it as soon as possible.
    Speedy reporting can increase the chances of culprits being apprehended and serves as a warning for others. In San Diego County, the Law Enforcement Coordinator Center compiles tips and information reported by seniors and their loved ones. Report the who, what, when, where, and how details of your attempted scammer to local law enforcement (police or sheriff’s department) and the Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) at IC3.gov. The FBI estimates that only about five percent of instances of elder fraud are reported, making it much more difficult to track trends and connect clues to crimes.

Looking Ahead

Reflecting on Grandparent’s Day earlier this month, let’s appreciate the love and wisdom of our seniors, honor their invaluable contributions, and renew our commitment to their safety and well- being. Our elders, who have given us so much, deserve to lead their lives free from the threat of scams and fraud. Use your memories of beloved elders as a catalyst to take proactive steps to safeguard seniors’ financial and emotional well-being.

It’s a tribute we can pay forward — a kindness that costs us nothing besides a little time, care, and attention.