Caregiver beware: Spotting scams that target seniors and other vulnerable adults


By Noah Lewellen

“Mary,” a senior living alone in Minnesota, received a Facebook message out of the blue from “Aaron,” a 50-something living in Montreal, Canada.1 Aaron was moving to Minnesota soon, he said, and wanted to make friends before he got there. Mary was happy to walk Aaron around her town virtually, trading photos of herself and the local scenery, receiving in return pictures of a dapper man who appeared to enjoy sailing, wine tasting, and travel. One day, Aaron reported some bad news—he needed shoulder surgery, and he simply wasn’t able to come up with enough money to pay for the $17,625.38 procedure. Mary graciously volunteered to lend Aaron money via gift cards and wire transfers to help him out of his bind. 

Over the next six months, Aaron reported a string of astonishingly bad luck, from additional trauma requiring medical intervention to issues with Customs’ refusal to allow him to cross into the United States with some gold bars he had acquired in his travels. By the time Mary realized that she would never meet Aaron or be repaid any of the money she had lent him, she had lost tens of thousands of dollars, paid by gift card or wire transfer.

Scams targeting senior citizens and other vulnerable adults are all too common. They typically focus on emotional pressure points: asking people to make snap decisions, ostensibly to help loved ones; preying on social isolation; and taking advantage of lack of familiarity with technology or changing methods of communication. 

Digital and telephone impersonation scams pose unique problems for private, and even state, enforcement. First, many scams originate in other countries. Second, by the time a scam has been reported, the victim has frequently already sent funds in ways that are difficult or impossible to trace or recoup, such as through gift cards or wire transfers to perpetrators using falsified identification. And third, victims are generally contacted through spoofed numbers or disposable email or social media accounts.

The best way to combat these scams is to identify them and take proactive steps to deal with them before they can cause any harm. While scammers are constantly evolving new ways to part people from their money, many of the most common reports received by the AGO of impersonation scams targeting seniors and other vulnerable adults involve variations on grandparent scams, romance scams, and government-impersonation phishing.

Grandparent scams

In a typical grandparent scam, a con artist calls or emails posing as a relative in distress or as someone claiming to represent the relative, such as a doctor, lawyer, or law enforcement agent. The scammer may frantically yell or talk over artificially induced white noise, making it difficult to identify the voice of the caller, with an opening like “grandma, it’s me.” This is often followed by a short description of an acute problem that, coincidentally, may be quickly solved by your sending of hundreds or thousands of dollars for bail money, lawyer fees, hospital bills, or other expenses. 

This type of scam preys on seniors’ empathy with their grandchildren, poor audio quality, declining hearing, and/or lack of knowledge of grandchildren’s email accounts. These scams are “hard sells,” demanding fast “emergency” action and thus targeting seniors’ declining ability to make smart decisions quickly.2

Often, slowing down to think about verifying the situation, or asking follow-up questions, can help prevent financial losses.3 Grandparents faced with these situations are encouraged to simply hang up and call or text the grandchild’s known cell phone number to verify the original caller’s identity. 

Romance scams

Social isolation has long been recognized as a significant factor in mental and physical decline in older adults.4 Researchers have also found that social isolation is a significant predictor of vulnerability to financial exploitation in older adults.5 Con artists take advantage of social isolation in so-called “romance scams” by engaging seniors and vulnerable adults in frequent and personal conversations, usually over social media. These longer-term scams can escalate into an expensive venture—like an overseas vacation or a visit to the victim—or culminate into an ask for cash to deal with some alleged emergency, as in the grandparent scam. 

Unlike grandparent scammers, however, romance scammers use the fabricated interpersonal relationship the victim feels they have with the scammer to repeatedly obtain access to the victim’s money or accounts. While termed a “romance scam,” after the most common variant involving a scammer professing to be falling in love with the victim, many such scams simply prey upon the victim’s desire for interpersonal, platonic relationships. 

When adults have frequent social interactions with people they care about, and with whom they discuss things occurring in their lives—like new, mysterious overseas love interests—romance scammers have less fertile ground for their scams. Friends, children, and caretakers should be on the lookout for sudden, intense relationships that blossom seemingly out of nowhere, especially when the first contact occurred online or by phone. 

Government-impersonation phishing/vishing

Phishing, once novel, is a ubiquitous threat found in nearly every organizational and individual email inbox in the country. In a government-impersonation phishing (or vishing, if done by phone) scam, the con artist impersonates an attorney or other government official purportedly contacting you from a trusted governmental agency like the Social Security Administration, or a trustworthy-sounding fictional governmental agency like the Government Grant Center. The scammer is here to deliver wonderful news—that you have been determined to be eligible for a higher level of benefits, or some grant for which you were previously ineligible. This scam may culminate in one of several ways, including asking for “verifying” information like a Social Security number or bank account number, or asking the victim to pay for an “administrative processing fee” via gift card, wire, or even cryptocurrency.

This scam preys on individuals’ financial insecurity, their trust in government institutions, and their lack of ready access to information. The scammer’s request for private information or payment is the biggest sign of the scam—government institutions will never request your full Social Security number or bank account information by phone, email, or social media. Generally, the websites, emails, and names the scammers use may initially seem plausible, but don’t pass muster upon closer inspection. For example, an internet search for “Government Grant Center” directs you to numerous scam alerts. Additionally, emails from government actors don’t come from, say, Hotmail accounts—even ones that start with “socialsecurityadministration.” 

As with grandparent scams and romance scams, the best practice is slowing down, asking questions, and talking to friends or family about what is happening, which will generally help prevent financial loss.

Impersonation scam hallmarks

The impersonation scams described above can take many forms, but potential victims and their friends and advocates should be aware of these common red flags:

  • Payment by wire transfer, gift card, or cryptocurrency. All three pose difficulties for law enforcement in tracking the ultimate recipient or user of the funds, and requests for payment by these means should be considered suspect.

  • Time-sensitive requests for significant amounts of money. It is rare that an urgent request for money cannot wait at least 30 minutes for additional investigation about the request. Reaching out to family and friends to get a second opinion may be invaluable in gaining perspective about the request before getting scammed.

  • Sudden and unusual outreach from a stranger or supposed friend or family member. Because scammers frequently pose as a trusted person, or prey on social isolation, friends and family should keep in touch with their loved ones to serve as a sounding board for unusual contacts. 

AGO and private actions to reduce financial impact of scams

The Minnesota Attorney General’s Office (AGO), in conjunction with other state and federal partners, has investigated scam conduct being enabled by money transmittal companies like Western Union and MoneyGram, both of which were required to institute anti-fraud programs, provide anti-fraud training to their employees, and take steps to terminate agents who failed to rigorously enforce the companies’ anti-fraud measures. The Federal Trade Commission, along with local law enforcement, has worked with private businesses to train employees and provide signage warning of gift card fraud.

The AGO has written and published, and routinely updates, publications on various scams and scam methods. The office’s publications, sorted by topic, can be accessed at https://www.ag.state.mn.us/Office/Publications.asp . The AGO encourages the public to download, print, and distribute the publications freely to better inform Minnesotans about scams, and thus defend against vulnerable adult exploitation.

If you, a client, or anyone you know has been harmed by an impersonation scam, you are encouraged to report the scam to both the Office of the Attorney General and the Federal Trade Commission. Government agencies may not be able to address every individual scam, but attorneys collecting these reports are better able to stay abreast of emerging scams in the marketplace that may be addressed by litigation or legislation. 

NOAH LEWELLEN has served as an assistant attorney general for seven years, most recently in the office’s Consumer Protection division. His practice includes a focus on consumer issues that impact Minnesota’s senior citizens.

1 Mary and Aaron are fictional, but the story told here is a patchwork of actual complaints received by the Minnesota Attorney General’s Office.

2 Mischa von Krause et al.Mental Speed is High Until Age 60 as Revealed by Analysis of Over a Million Participants, 6 Nature Hum. Behavior700 (May 2022).

3 Some research suggests that seniors actually process and analyze information better than younger adults, demonstrating a more fine-grained interpretation of incoming data, but that additional time is required for an aging brain to do so. Michael Ramscar et al.The Myth of Cognitive Decline: Non-Linear Dynamics of Lifelong Learning, 6 Topics in Cognitive Science 5 (Jan. 2014).

4 Omolola Adepojou et al., Correlates of Social Isolation Among Community-Dwelling Older Adults During the COVID-19 Pandemic, 9 Front Pub. Health 702965 (2021) (collecting sources, noting significant increases in dementia and premature death in socially isolated older adults).

5 Aaron C. Lim et al.Interpersonal Dysfunction Predicts Subsequent Financial Exploitation Vulnerability in a Sample of Adults Over 50: A Prospective Observational Study, Aging & Mental Health (May 2022).