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Fraudsters continue to find increasingly sophisticated ways to access people's hard-earned money. And while anyone can fall for a scam, fraud often affects older people, threatening their life savings.
Thankfully, you can take actions to protect yourself. The first step is knowing what kinds of fraud most often impact consumers. Once you know this, it can be easier to spot potential scams.
Here's a look at how common these crimes are as well as a rundown of five different types of financial fraud, complete with actionable strategies and tips regarding fraud prevention.
The Facts on Fraud
The U.S. government handles several million cases of fraud every year.1 The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) operates the Consumer Sentinel Network, a website that collects consumer complaints and data from law enforcement agencies. In 2020, the site received 4.7 million fraud reports. Another FTC-run site, IdentityTheft.gov, received an additional 1.4 million reports. These numbers reflect a significant increase over figures from 2019.
While fraud can happen to people of any age, governmental research shows most fraud victims tend to be either in their twenties or age 60 and older. It's not surprising these groups are targeted, especially with online scams, because clever, predatory attackers perceive them as either inexperienced or vulnerable.
In a report released by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), 28% of the reported fraud losses in 2020 involved people over 60 years old.2 Those losses totaled approximately $1 billion, an increase of $300 million from 2019. Additionally, the Consumer Sentinel Network's Data Book 2020 notes that 44% of the fraud reports it received were made by people ages 20-29, compared to 20% by those ages 70-79.3 Not surprisingly, when fraud victims are older, their financial loss tends to be much higher. The FTC found the median loss for those in the 20-29 age bracket was $324, but it was nearly double that amount for people over 70 and jumped to $1,300 for people over 80.
The 5 Most Common Types of Financial Fraud
It's clear from the data above that reports of fraud are on the rise. The list of fraudulent activities seems ever-growing, so it takes keen attention to learn how to protect yourself and your loved ones. The five categories below describe typical kinds of financial fraud schemes and offer tips for spotting telltale signs.
1. Identity Theft
Identify theft happens when someone steals your personal information, something that now increasingly happens online.
When a scammer gets your personal information, they may try to steal your money, charge items to your credit card, claim your Social Security benefits, open new financial accounts or set up a variety of similar scams. So, it's critical to keep your information safeguarded.
Some signs of identity theft:
- You begin receiving bills for purchases you didn't make or services you didn't use.
- Bills you used to receive in the mail suddenly stop coming, or you're getting new statements for accounts you didn't open.
- You notice charges you didn't authorize on your bank or credit card statements.
How to prevent identity theft:
- Don't give out your personal information online, including via email or social media.
- Review your bank account and credit card statements regularly to spot inconsistencies or unrecognized purchases, even if they're small.
- Consider paying for a service that monitors identity theft and sends you alerts.
2. Credit Card Fraud
Closely related to identity fraud is credit card — or debit card — fraud. It's when a scammer manages to get your card information and racks up spending.
If you don't use your cards often, this type of fraud might go on for months without you noticing. By the time you realize it, you could have thousands of dollars due. Credit card fraud can be difficult to remedy, and it can affect your credit score.
Some signs of credit card fraud:
- You suddenly have a lower available credit balance, or your card is declined when you try to use it.
- You are notified that your password or PIN has been changed or that a purchase has been made without the card being present.
- You see charges you didn't make when reviewing your statements.
How to prevent credit card fraud:
- When paying for items online, make sure the website is secure. This is often indicated with "https" (rather than just "http") at the beginning of the URL along with a lock icon that shows the page is protected.
- Review your credit card statements for charges from locations you don't frequent.
- Sign your cards as soon as you get them, and consider taking only the card you need when you leave home.
3. Elder Financial Fraud
Elder financial fraud happens when someone claiming to act in the best interest of an older person is actually scamming them for their money, assets or possessions. It can involve financial, legal or accounting professionals, caregivers and even family members.
The person being scammed may not realize it because of poor health or reduced mental capacity. Sometimes it goes unnoticed because incidents are low-key or a slow drain. Or in some cases, the fraudster has access to bank or retirement accounts the victim doesn't closely follow.
Some signs of elder financial fraud:
- You or your loved one notice items missing from around the house.
- Your loved one suddenly wants to change important documents such as their will, or they fall for a life insurance policy scam.
- Your loved one says they've given someone access to their bank, credit card or retirement accounts.
How to prevent elder financial fraud:
- Get to know your loved one's caregivers and watch for the signs of theft or fraud.
- Think about having two people in charge of your loved one's finances so that both have to approve any significant changes or charges.
4. Imposter Scams
Many fraud schemes are run by people acting as imposters — from pretending to be government officials to fake charities soliciting donations to bogus claims that you've won something.
These scams can happen online, in-person, over the phone or through the mail, making them difficult to identify. But a definite red flag is that they want you to give them your personal information or money without them giving you very clear details or documentation in return.
Some signs of imposter scams:
- You get an unsolicited request from a seemingly official organization saying you have an urgent bill due or need to make changes to your account.
- You get an unsolicited notification that you've won money or a prize through a lottery or grant but you need to pay a fee first.
- Someone claiming to be from a charity or a utility company you don't recognize is persistent about asking for money.
How to prevent imposter scams:
- Confirm any assertions about unrecognized bills due or prizes won directly with the organization using their officially listed contact information.
- Don't be afraid to hang up, ignore the letter/email or ask the visitor to not come again.
- Don't rely on caller ID or spam filters to screen scammers. They can make it seem official with false or misleading names, logos and URLs.
5. Romance Fraud
Despite all the cautionary tales, romance scams continue to flourish. Many scammers target older singles, divorced or widowed, believing them to be vulnerable, and ask for money or other financial or personal information. When they get it, they disappear. Given the popularity of online dating, it's easier than ever to connect unwittingly with scammers. According to the FTC, romance scams make up nearly a quarter of all frauds that originate on social media.4
Some signs of romance fraud:
- The person only wants to communicate online despite seeming to be invested in evolving the relationship.
- They ask you to send money so they can travel to visit you, then cancel plans after getting the funds.
- They quickly declare their love in hopes you'll put your guard down and trust them.
How to prevent romance fraud:
- Think twice about connecting with someone over a distance, especially outside of the country.
- Don't share personal financial information online with someone you don't entirely know or trust.
- Beware of financial requests such as borrowing money for plane tickets or family emergencies.
What to Do if You're the Victim of Financial Fraud
If you think someone may have stolen your identity or you've been the victim of another type of fraud, you can get help. Here are a few steps to consider taking in the immediate aftermath:
- Check with the appropriate government agency. You may even be able to do this online. The FTC runs IdentityTheft.gov and ReportFraud.ftc.gov, which have information and guidance on identifying and reporting fraud.
- Contact your local police department. You may want to file a report to get it on record, even if the scam was online. This step may be required by credit card companies or credit bureaus before they'll get involved.
- Request holds on your bank account and credit cards. For any accounts you access online, change all your passwords just to be safe. (It's a good idea to update your password every few months anyway.)
- Place a fraud alert with the credit reporting bureaus. This will help protect your credit score if the fraudster takes advantage of your existing finances or uses your identity to falsify new accounts.
Resources to Get Help Against Potential Fraud
You don't have to worry about fraud on your own. These resources can help you identify scams and assist you if you think you've been a victim of fraud:
- AnnualCreditReport.com. The three credit reporting bureaus allow you to access your report for free once every year. You can use this organization, which is authorized by federal law, to request them.
- IdentityTheft.gov. Run by the FTC, this site lets you report identity theft and provides advice and resources.
- ReportFraud.ftc.gov. This is the FTC's primary site for reporting frauds, scams and bad business practices.
- Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. You can use this site to learn more about fraud and file complaints.
- FBI elder fraud site. This site will help you spot different types of financial fraud and has tips on reporting scams.
- AARP Fraud Watch Network. This resource can make you aware of potential frauds happening in your area.
While there is no way to 100% guarantee you will never fall victim to a scammer, once you know how to prevent fraud, you can dramatically reduce your chances.
It takes a little bit of education and practice to better protect yourself and reduce your risk. But when you know the most common financial scams and how people fall victim to them, they become easier to spot and avoid.