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Lonely adults can easily fall victim to financial predators

by Susan Wright | Contributor
February 9, 2023


Love is an essential need for all human beings. For older adults – and particularly those who have lost a spouse or partner – love is a void that can leave people vulnerable to fulfill. Unfortunately, romance scams – also commonly referred to as “sweetheart” scams – often target older Americans.

In doing so, con artists will employ numerous tactics to take advantage of people – especially through dating apps and social media websites. As a result, victims typically suffer from both financial and emotional damage.

Scammers will generally start by tugging at their victims’ heartstrings and building trust, which makes it easier to bilk them out of money – in some cases as much as five and six figures. So, if you or someone you care about has become “suddenly single,” it is essential to put some measures of protection in place because a lot could be on the line.

How romance scams work

While there are many types of romance scams, the most common of these involve an individual using a fake profile on dating or social media websites to engage victims romantically (through flattery) and eventually start asking for money.

A decrease in contact from friends and family makes it easier for seniors to fall victim to romance scams – including seemingly “small” ones that can quickly turn into significant financial losses.

According to the National Council on Aging, adults age 70 and over who were victims of these scams in 2020 lost an average of nearly $9,500 each. Although, individuals who are between the ages of 40 and 69 are also highly sought after as victims of romance scams, too.

Romance scammers tend to target older adults to take advantage of their polite and trusting nature. In addition, seniors and older adults often have a more stable financial situation, as compared to younger individuals. Engaging with a wealthy senior can be like hitting the jackpot for a scam artist.

Elderly woman checkin her accounts over the phone

Once the scammer starts communicating with their victim, things tend to escalate and turn personal fairly quickly. Typically, the scammer will shower the victim with compliments and will often communicate with them several times a day via text, email, phone or online chat.

Then, once the scammer knows that the victim has fallen for them, it is easy to ask for money, as well as gift cards and other forms of financial assistance. Unfortunately, the victim is usually so “smitten” with the con artist that they have no idea they are being swindled.

Common red flags, or signs, that you or a loved one is being targeted in a romance scam can include the scammer:

  • Claiming that they live overseas or are traveling outside of the United States (which helps them to avoid meeting in person with the victim).
  • Asking the victim to move the conversation off of the dating app or social media website and to instead communicate directly via personal email, phone or text.
  • Saying all the right things to lure the victim into trusting them, such as flattering them, professing their “love,” and quickly escalating the relationship – a tactic that is often referred to as “love bombing.”
  • Refusing to chat on video, claiming that their camera doesn’t work or that they don’t know how to use it.
  • Making plans to meet in person, but always coming up with excuses for why they have to cancel or postpone.
  • Claiming to have some type of emergency – such as a dire medical condition – and asking for money to obtain treatment and/or to come and visit the victim (but never following through with it).

In addition to taking an emotional toll on the victims, romance scams are also among the frauds that can cause the highest losses for seniors. It can also be more difficult for law enforcement to find the perpetrator(s), particularly as many of the scammers are contacting their victims from outside of the United States.

According to the U.S. Secret Service, criminals do extensive research on their potential victims, including:

  • Looking through social media websites.
  • Scanning dating websites and apps.

Scammers are experts at manipulating people, and they will often use social media and other online posts against the victim. When the victim feels like they have a real connection with the other individual, they become more deeply invested in the relationship.

Unfortunately, while the internet can provide a great deal of convenience when it comes to shopping or finding information, it can also offer anonymity for criminals, which allows them unlimited time to “troll” for possible victims and hope someone will take the bait.

Romance scams involving seniors surged during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Losses reported to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) alone rose from $84 million in 2019, to roughly $139 million in 2021.

The isolation and loneliness due to the stay-at-home orders made seniors even more vulnerable because they were longing for human contact. So, friendly emails, social media messages and phone calls were hard to pass up. Many of the scammers also used the pandemic and quarantine requirements to explain their requests for money, as well as their inability to meet the victims in person.

Some romance scammers don’t stop by just asking for money from their victims, though. For instance, some of these con artists will even turn their victims into unwitting criminals themselves by convincing them to launder money and move fraudulent funds – and in doing so, the victim could be legally liable for these actions.

In many cases, the victims of romance scams are reluctant to report the crime. This can be due to the embarrassment and humiliation that they were duped – and that they became emotionally and financially invested in the false relationship.

Other common scams to be aware of

In addition to romance scams, there are other common avenues for fraud to take place – and it can happen to people of all ages. These can include the following:

  • Government imposter scams
  • Identity theft
  • Shopping scams
  • Robocalls and unsolicited phone calls
  • Health care and health insurance scams
  • Sweepstakes and lottery scams
  • Tech support and computer scams
  • Financial services impersonation and fraud
  • “Person in need” and grandparent scams

Government imposter scams

In a government imposter scam, the fraudster will pretend to be a representative of a federal agency, such as the IRS or the Social Security Administration. The scammer will usually demand that the victim pay “taxes that are due,” or threaten to stop their retirement income benefits.

Some of the most common red flags in a government imposter scam can include a government agency” calling to verify the victim’s address or Social Security number and/or being pressured to make an important decision quickly.

Identity theft

Identity theft is one of the fastest-growing crimes in the U.S., and around the world. The Federal Trade Commission received 5.88 million fraud complaints in 2021. It is estimated that financial losses from this type of fraud alone reached more than $6 billion.

There are numerous forms that identity theft can take, such as:

  • Use of the victim’s personal information by a fraudster to open bank accounts or credit cards and/or to take out loans (including home mortgages)
  • Making purchases using the victim’s credit card
  • Selling the victim’s personal, financial and/or medical information to other scammers
  • Posing as a patient to receive medical treatment using the victim’s health insurance or Medicare ID cards
  • Filing for unemployment benefits using the victim’s information
  • Committing crimes and if caught, using a victim’s driver’s license or other personal identification instead of their own
  • Using the victim’s credit report and score to make large purchases
  • Filing false income tax returns to receive a refund (or even multiple refunds)

It can take a long time to recover from identity theft – and many victims do not ever regain all of the money that they lost – nor their peace of mind.

If you or a loved one believe that you’ve fallen victim to identity theft, there are several ways to check. These methods include:

  • Accessing credit reports in search of any incorrect information
  • Checking bank and credit card statements for unauthorized transactions
  • Verifying bills for medical services and/or other items to ensure that they accurately reflect the services you or your loved one actually received

Shopping scams

Shopping scams – particularly those that involve shopping online – are also on the rise. For instance, in 2021, these scams led to approximately $393 million in reported losses. An online shopping scam can occur in several forms – and both buyers and sellers can be at risk. Some of the most common forms of shopping scams include:

  • Goods or services that are purchased (and paid for) are never delivered to the buyer
  • Items have been misrepresented by the seller
  • False negative customer reviews are posted and used to intimidate or harass sellers
  • Sellers are swindled with fraudulent forms of payment

Robocalls and unsolicited phone calls

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) receives millions of complaints every year regarding unwanted and bothersome phone calls. Today, calls can be made by humans or computers. For example, “robocalls” can be made from anywhere in the world, and they often contain a message that was created via a pre-recorded or robotic voice.

The goal of unsolicited phone calls – both human and robotic – is usually to obtain the victim’s personal information, such as their Social Security number, bank account numbers or driver’s license number.

To remain untraceable, fraudsters will often “disguise” their phone number so that it shows up as a “local” call to the victim. This, in turn, can increase the likelihood of the call recipient answering the phone.

Health care and health insurance scams

Scammers will also try to impersonate Medicare or a victim’s health insurance company to “verify” personal information on a claim and/or to offer them “additional coverage or benefits.” With regard to seniors, the frequency of these calls will usually increase during Medicare’s open enrollment period, which runs from October to December each year.

Some of the common tactics used in health care and health insurance scams include the caller:

  • Posing as a government employee and saying that the victim will be charged a fee to receive their Medicare card or benefits
  • Offering to help the victim navigate the health insurance marketplace in exchange for a fee
  • Selling a “discount health insurance plan” (that does not actually exist)

Sweepstakes and lottery scams

A sweepstakes or lottery scam is designed to make the victim believe that they have won some type of prize. However, before they can claim their winnings, the scammer tells them that they must first pay taxes or some other type of processing fee. Often, the fee or tax must either be wired or sent via cash or gift card, which can make it more difficult to trace and recover.

Oftentimes, the scammer will tell the victim not to let their family or friends know about these “winnings.” This part of the scam is meant to keep the victim from realizing that they really didn’t win anything at all – and that they are about to part with some of their own money!

Another telltale sign that the call or email is likely from a scammer is if you (or your loved one) did not participate in any type of contest, lottery or drawing for a gift. In addition, if you receive an email with a link, do not click on it. Otherwise, you could run the risk of being hacked – which is yet another way for scammers to wreak havoc on your finances and your life.

Tech support and computer scams

Some scammers even play off of the likelihood of victims being hacked. For instance, some computer-based frauds involve con artists pretending to be associated with a well-known technology company, such as Apple or Microsoft, and (falsely) claiming that your computer has been “infected” with a virus.

To help fix the issue, the scammer will ask for a credit card or checking account number so that they can “bill” for their repair services. Because older adults are typically less tech-savvy than younger individuals, they are more apt to become victims of tech support and computer-related scams.

It is important not to call a phone number or go to a website that is given to you (or your loved one) by a scammer because these are also part of the overall scheme. Rather, you should directly contact a legitimate repair or tech company.

Financial services impersonation and fraud

Yet another common fraud against seniors and people of all ages is financial services impersonation – which also includes debt and mortgage fraud, where scammers pretend to be debt collectors and coerce victims into paying a debt that does not actually exist.

Oftentimes, the scammers will use strong-arm tactics – even telling the victim(s) that they could go to jail if they do not pay the debt(s). Before offering a caller any form of payment, it is essential to first directly verify with a creditor to determine if a debt balance actually exists.

“Person in need” and grandparent scams

The person in need and grandparent scams have also grown in popularity over the years. These involve a scammer calling, emailing or using some other form of contact and stating that they are detained in a foreign country or in some other type of trouble. In some cases, the caller will tell the victim that their grandchild asked them to call because they need help.

The fraudster will go on to tell the victim that they need money to get back home or to post bail and get out of jail – and they will usually need these funds immediately. In other cases, the scammer will impersonate a law enforcement officer – even though they will provide the victim with very little information about the situation.

Tips for preventing yourself or someone you love from becoming a victim

While there is no guarantee that you can completely shield yourself or someone else from becoming the victim of a romance scam, there are ways to recognize the red flags so that the odds of success for the scammers are reduced.

Some of the best ways to do so include the following:

  • Not answering calls from unknown numbers. (If you do answer, you should hang up immediately and not provide the caller with any information.)
  • Ignoring/deleting friend requests from unknown individuals on social media sites.
  • Not clicking on links in emails that are sent by those you normally do not communicate with.
  • “Googling” the person to find more information about them (and typing in the individual’s full name, along with the word “scam,” to see what you can find).
  • Checking to see if you (or your loved one) have mutual connections or “friends” with the individual on social media.
  • Avoiding “quizzes” and other similar online threads that ask you for personal details – even seemingly harmless information like your pet’s name or your favorite hobbies.
  • Not clicking on ads that offer coupons or discounts on products or services.
  • Stopping all contact with potential scammers by blocking their text, email and phone messages.
  • Protecting your social media accounts by using privacy settings and strong passwords.
  • Setting up fraud alerts on your bank and credit card accounts.
  • Purchasing gift cards from stores you know and trust.
  • Keeping all of your receipts on gift card and online purchases.
  • Not sending intimate or compromising photos that could later be used as blackmail.
  • Maintaining open lines of communication with loved ones who can help you determine whether the situation at hand is real or a fraud.

If you or a loved one has already become the victim of a romance scam, there are some things you can do to help lessen the impact of the situation, such as:

  • File a report with the website or app where communication with the scammer was initiated.
  • Notify your bank(s) and other financial institutions where accounts may have been (or are still being) illegally accessed.
  • File a report with the Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) at
  • Change all online passwords.
  • Put a security freeze on credit reports.
  • Block the scammer on all forms of communication.
  • Report the incident to the Federal Trade Commission by going to:
  • Continue to review all bank, credit card and other statements in the days, months and even years following an incident to ensure that nothing else fraudulent shows up.

It is important to make these contacts as soon as possible. In addition, having a checklist available for reference can help you to ensure that you cover all of the necessary information in a complaint or report that you file.

Protecting, growing and controlling your finances

Romance and other scams targeted at seniors are growing rapidly – and criminals are constantly changing their tactics to lure unwary victims. So, it is important to take precautions and keep your assets – and emotions – safe.

One way to do that, as well as to grow your portfolio and generate ongoing retirement income, is to work with a financial professional who is also aware of potential financial-related scams. For more information about planning your financial future, contact us today.

Alliance America can help

Alliance America is an insurance and financial services company dedicated to the art of personal financial planning. Our financial professionals can assist you in maximizing your retirement resources and achieving your future goals. We have access to an array of products and services, all focused on helping you enjoy the retirement lifestyle you want and deserve. You can request a no-cost, no-obligation consultation by calling (833) 219-6884 today.

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