Helping older adults avoid scams and stay safe


Bill Motchan, Special to the Jewish Light

An email pops up with an offer of untold riches. You are the lucky beneficiary who will get millions of dollars from a Nigerian prince. All you have to do is provide your bank account number, for which you’ll be charged a nominal “transfer fee.” 

Most computer users are savvy enough to steer clear of the so-called “419 scam” (section 419 of the Nigerian criminal code addresses obtaining property through false promises). But plenty of people do fall for bogus online scams. The FBI reported $7 billion was lost to cybercrime in 2021. The vast majority of the victims were age 60 and older.

“The No. 1 target of all these lies are mature, older adults,” said Alan Haber, a volunteer with the St. Louis NORC Get Tech team, who help seniors feel more comfortable with technology. “Older adults are more susceptible because this is a technology they didn’t grow up with.”

Haber and Jay Grosman are both Jewish St. Louisans who work with older adults and help them avoid being the victims of scams. Haber’s expertise is technology. Grosman specializes in car sales.

Everybody wants a deal

The reason so many internet scams succeed is that they promise great return with minimal investment. It can be especially tempting for someone on a fixed income. Evaluate these deals with a healthy dose of skepticism, said Haber, who owns the home computer consultant company

“If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is,” he said. “Everybody wants a deal, and they want to get rich. You get an official looking email from an institution that looks legitimate, and it says all you need to do is click on a link to make a lot of money. You think, ‘I need to click on this link.’ But you don’t want to click on it.

“There are also scammers who call and claim to be Microsoft. They tell you that your computer needs attention. With so many tech companies like Microsoft outsourcing their technical support, people think it’s a real person, and they are more likely to be taken advantage of.”

Haber said other common scams use a bit of theater. It begins when the scammer calls an older adult and pretends to be a relative who is in trouble. 

“It can be as simple,” he said, “as the voice on the other end saying, ‘Grandpa? I’m in jail. Please don’t tell mom and dad. I was speeding. I need to have money wired. Can you go to Walmart and get a cashier’s check, so I can get out of jail?’ ”

A variation is the gift card scam, in which an email comes from someone you know and requests your help buying a gift card. But the scammer has hijacked the email account, so it appears to be a friend. That scam is an easy one to cash in on, Haber said, because gift cards can’t be tracked.

One tech concern many computer users have is viruses. Haber said he sometimes hears from older adults about their computer suddenly emitting a high-pitched screeching sound. A pop-up message reads: “Do not turn off your computer. All your data will be lost.”

“You’re scared because you hear an alarm in your computer,” Haber said. “When this happens and someone calls me, I tell them, ‘First, turn your speaker down, then turn off your computer.’ This is why virus protection is important. I tell clients to have two types of virus protection on your computer. My analogy is if you buy a very expensive car but have cheap tires. The same is true for your computer. You don’t want cheap or free when it comes to virus protection.”

Haber suggested some basic tips to prevent being the victim of tech scams. First, he said, never provide your full Social Security number to someone on the phone. When scammers get that number, they can easily obtain your credit cards and even gain access to your financial accounts. And if someone calls claiming to be a retailer and asks for your credit card number, don’t provide it.

“I never give out my credit card to someone who calls me,” he said. “I tell them to give me the name of their company’s website and their phone number. Then I say, ‘I’ll call you back after I check it out.’ ”

Safe car sales

Selling a used car can be tough for older adults. It can be an emotionally draining experience if the driver has decided it is time to hand over the keys because of slower reaction time that could compromise safety. And car owners who have been meticulous about caring for the vehicle want to get the maximum value when selling it.

Ideally, the seller should have a friend or relative along when meeting a potential buyer and do so in a safe place, such as the parking lot of a police station. Those are some basics to protect yourself, said Grosman, the car sales expert.

“I’m very involved in car sales for older people,” Grosman said. “My advice starts with the advertisement. Don’t put that you have the title in hand. A scammer could show up with a gun and take the car and the title.

“Then, when you take a photo of your car for the ad, don’t have the license plate visible in the photo. When you show your license plate, people can get a lot of information from that. And from your home address.”

Grosman’s company, iAutoAgent, serves as an independent broker for many car sellers and buyers who want to avoid the stress of going through a dealer or an online portal such as Craigslist. 

But some car owners prefer to handle the sale, and for those people Grosman offers additional tips. 

After a potential buyer agrees to the price of your car, insist on talking to them on the phone.

“Don’t immediately go meet with somebody,” Grosman said. “You can find a lot by talking to them. Ask them how they’re going to pay for it. If you do go alone to meet them, tell a loved one where you’re going. And when you arrive at the meeting place, use the camera in your phone to take a picture of their driver’s license, insurance card and license plate.”

If you allow the buyer to test drive your car, Grosman said, make sure you’ve removed all identifying information about yourself from the glove compartment. Also, remove your garage door opener — a scammer could easily hack the code on the opener and use it to break into your home when you’re away.

“And when you make the actual transaction, do it at a bank,” he said. “That way, you can verify funds and minimize the possibility of accepting a counterfeit cashier’s check.”