Elder Scams and What to Watch For

Jul 28 2020

Could you spot a scammer? Some scams might seem obvious in hindsight, but scammers are very good at what they do – and older adults are often their preferred targets.
Elder Scam

Shortly after Vikki Nielsen, Bell Bank senior wealth and fiduciary advisor, went through training about elder scams and what to watch for, a customer stopped in, asking if he had money in his account.

“I just started peeling the onion and asking additional questions,” Vikki says.

While he seemed embarrassed to talk about it, Vikki’s customer shared that he was broke. Vikki asked what was going on, and the customer revealed that he’d met a nice lady a year ago who became his friend. A few months later, she started asking to borrow money. He gave it to her, fully expecting to be paid back, adding that the woman had even kept a list of everything she owed him.

But Vikki suspected something was wrong.

“My antenna was up,” she notes. “It just didn’t feel right.”

Concern for her customer prompted Vikki to share his experience with Heidi Schumacher, a fraud officer at Bell.

“We aren’t the ones who determine whether exploitation is going on,” Heidi clarifies. “We are the ones who identify red flags and report them to the proper authorities.”


Raising a Red Flag

Vikki planned to visit with her customer again after a couple of days. When he returned, the customer shared that he was surprised a social worker who talked to him thought he’d been the victim of fraud.

Scammers often prey on people’s loneliness, Heidi explains, and they typically try to find a common bond or link.

“That’s when the exploitation starts,” she says. “And there’s always a sob story. They’re always trying to tear at someone’s heartstrings.”

Over a period of 6 months, Vikki’s customer had been swindled out of 6 figures worth of cash. There was never a paper trail, and her customer never suspected anything was wrong.

“I think he legitimately thought he would be paid back,” Vikki affirms.

No age group is immune to potential scams, but certain groups do seem more susceptible to specific types of scams. Read this article for some of the more common scams by age group.


Common Scams that Target Seniors

Older adults are more likely to report losing money to tech support scams, impostor fraud, and prize, sweepstakes, and lottery scams, an October 2019 Federal Trade Commission (FTC) report shows. While adults ages 60 and older are less likely to report losing money to fraud, the amount of money they’re losing is rising. Those aged 80 and older report losing the most – at an average of $1,700 per incident.

In impostor fraud, scammers pretend to be someone you might trust – often a relative or government official (such as the IRS or Medicare) – to trick you into sending them money or giving them your personal information. They often create an “emergency” situation, preying on your emotions and creating a sense of urgency, so you act fast and may not think as clearly.

That’s exactly what happened to one of our customers. Pretending to be his grandson, a scammer tried tricking our customer out of nearly $10,000. Read how he prevented the fraud here.

Some impostor scammers pretend to be fake charities. The FTC recommends researching the organization on your own to make sure it’s legitimate, pay by credit card or check (scammers often ask for cash, gift cards or by wiring money), and keep a record of your donations, reviewing your statements to make sure you’re only charged what you agreed to donate.


Phishing scams

Phishing scams are another type of impostor fraud – done through email. Phishing scams often have a sense of urgency telling you that if you fail to update or confirm your personal or account information, access to your accounts will be suspended. They typically ask for personal information such as account numbers, passwords and other sensitive information such as your birth date or mother’s maiden name. Bell Bank will never ask you for your confidential personal or account information via email.

Prize, sweepstakes, and lottery scams are among the most common consumer frauds, the FTC says. These scams often claim you have to pay a fee, taxes or customs duties to claim your prize, but you shouldn’t have to pay a fee to claim a prize you’ve “won.”

Additionally, the FTC says some nursing homes and assisted living facilities are trying to claim the stimulus checks sent to their residents on Medicaid. But according to the FTC, those stimulus payments don’t count as “resources” for federal benefits programs, like Medicaid. If it’s already happened to you or a loved one, your state attorney general’s office can help you get it back.

Many people don’t realize how common scams are – partly because victims are often too embarrassed to share what they’ve experienced.


Why It’s Important to Talk about Scams

“When people are victims of scams, I encourage them to talk about it,” Heidi affirms. “It’s a training tool for other people. Our department is taking scam calls daily, and we’re filing reports with Adult Protective Services at least once a week. We are doing more training with our frontline staff and making them aware that this is something they should be looking for, because it’s one of those things that goes grossly unreported.”

Both Vikki and Heidi explain that situations like the one Vikki’s customer experienced are difficult to prosecute because the customer willingly gave the scammer money.

“Prosecution often depends on the mental state of the victim,” Heidi notes. “He’s not getting that money back.”

“What’s frustrating is the scammer is still walking around possibly having conversations with other people,” Vikki shares. “The woman who committed the fraud, she knew what she was doing.”

Shortly after the suspected fraud was reported, the woman was planning to meet Vikki’s customer for breakfast, but she never showed show up.

Some customers don’t like being asked a lot of questions about their finances, but Heidi insists that asking enough questions to make sure people aren’t victims of fraud – or to help them if they are – is just an extension of our customer service.

“It’s our job to protect them and their money,” Heidi says.


Scammers Aren’t Always Strangers

While learning about elder scams and how to spot them, Vikki immediately thought of another customer whose daughter seemed to be taking advantage of her. The woman had been a customer for a few years and started calling in regularly needing more and more money.

“It’s all about behavior,” Heidi says. “When that behavior switches, we need to start asking questions, because something happened.”

In this case, the customer wanted help and knew she was being taken advantage of, but didn’t know how to say “no” to her daughter.

“Ninety percent of elder scams are committed by a family member or trusted individual,” Heidi notes, explaining that someone might use their power of attorney authority to withdraw money for their benefit – not the account holder’s.


Protecting Your Financials, Social Security and Investments from Fraud

When in doubt, err on the side of caution. If someone asks an unusual question or wants to borrow money, don’t answer right away. If something seems strange, you can always check with the bank.

The FTC is encouraging older adults to talk about scams, “because you’re less likely to fall for a scam that you’ve talked about.” They also encourage victims to report scams to ftccomplaintassistant.gov.


Follow these simple steps to help avoid scammers and protect yourself from fraud:

  1. Don’t answer phone numbers or emails you don’t recognize.
  2. Don’t open links you’re not expecting – even if they’re from people you know.
  3. If a situation seems strange or “too good to be true” talk to someone you trust, or contact the bank.
  4. Be suspicious of any callers – especially claiming to be from a government agency – who threaten jail, try to create a sense of urgency, or ask you to pay them with a money order, wire transfer or gift card.
  5. Learn more about common scams, scams by topic, and what to do about them on the FTC’s website.
  6. If you believe you have provided information about your Bell Bank accounts to a fraudulent email or website, contact us immediately by calling 701-298-1550 or toll-free 800-450-8949.

Additionally, Bell Bank has several ways you can safeguard your finances with free alerts. Learn about them here.


These common scams are, unfortunately, just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to what cybercriminals will try to do to trick you out of your hard-earned money.


Here are a few more cases of consumer exploitation to know about:

Mobile Phone Scams

Mobile scam calls have skyrocketed. Scammers are finding increasingly savvy ways to get people to answer their phones. The most popular trick – known as neighborhood spoofing – involves disguising their phone number to display as a local number on caller ID.

If you get a call from someone you don’t know who is trying to sell you something you hadn’t planned to buy, or if the caller pressures you to give personal information or money, chances are it’s a scam.


While you might not be able to prevent scammers from targeting you, there are some ways you can thwart their attempts.

  1. If you don’t recognize a phone number, don’t answer your phone. If it’s a legitimate caller, they will likely leave you a voicemail message.
  2. If you get a recorded voicemail message instead of one from a live person – or if you answer the phone and hear a recorded message, hang up. It’s likely an illegal robocall (unless you’ve given the company written permission to call you).
  3. Register all of your phone numbers with the National Do Not Call Registry. If you still get unwanted calls, there’s a good chance they’re from scammers. You can report them at donotcall.gov.
  4. If you do answer a call from an unknown number, be suspicious of high-pressure tactics and offers that seem too good to be true. Telemarketers are legally required to tell you it’s a sales call, the name of the seller and what they’re selling before making their pitch. If they don’t, hang up.
  5. Do not give out or even confirm your account information. Some callers already have your billing information, and the FTC says they’re trying to get you to confirm it, so they can claim you approved a charge.

Data Breaches and Identity Theft

Data breaches and identity theft are on the rise. Make protecting your identity an essential part of your personal security routine. Here are a few tips to help you protect yourself:

  1. Monitor your accounts

    Reviewing statements or accounts regularly is a great way to catch an issue. If something is out of place, report it immediately.
  2. Review your credit reports

    You're entitled to one free copy per year from each of the 3 major credit bureaus. Ordering one from a different bureau every 4 months can help you keep tabs on your record year-round. Look for misreported delinquencies, over-reported loan amounts, and underreported credit limits. Request corrections from the bureau in writing.
  3. Protect your Social Security number

    Some companies may ask for your Social Security number before doing business with you, but not every company needs it. Ask why the number is needed and ask to see their policies for safeguarding your information.
  4. Secure your accounts

    Be sure to have secure passwords on all of your accounts. If an account gets hacked, having unique secure passwords on other accounts may prevent further access to other accounts. If your identity is stolen, you can also work with the credit bureaus to set up a fraud alert or credit freeze to prevent additional accounts being set up in your name.

Wire Fraud

One of the ways scam artists try to steal your money is by pressuring you to use money-transfer services through companies like Western Union and MoneyGram.

By convincing people to wire them money, scammers receive their payment before you even realize you’ve been cheated. And once you’ve wired a payment, there’s typically no way to reverse the transaction or trace the money.

But there are steps you can take to protect yourself against wire fraud and thwart would-be scammers:

  1. Never respond to an e-mail containing wire instructions. Instead, call the requester using previously known contact information (NOT information provided in the e-mail) to verify the wire instructions prior to sending any funds.
  2. Verbally verify (from a trusted source) any electronic wire instructions you may receive.
  3. Do not open attachments or click on web links within emails unless you are sure the message is from someone you know and trust. Scammers often try to disguise malicious links and attachments within email. Always hover over the link before clicking on it. If you don’t recognize the website, don’t click on the link.
  4. Wire instructions rarely change, so if you receive an email saying that any wiring instructions have changed, confirm the validity with a trusted source.
  5. Don’t wire money to someone:
    • You’ve never met

      Who says a money transfer is the only form of payment they accept

      Who asks you to deposit a check and send some of the money back

If someone claims to be a relative in crisis, and they ask you to wire money but don’t want you to tell anyone, be very suspicious. This is a common scam.

► If you’ve wired money to a scam artist, the Federal Trade Commission recommends calling the money transfer company immediately to report the fraud and file a complaint.

If A Scammer Contacts You:

If you believe you have provided information about your Bell Bank accounts to a fraudulent email or website, contact us immediately by calling 701-298-1550 or toll-free 800-450-8949.

If you spot a scam, report it at ftc.gov/complaint. You can also sign up for free scam alerts from the FTC at ftc.gov/scams.