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Expert warns about scams targeting seniors 

June 28, 2013 at 3:29 PM ET

Image: Gail Hillebrand
Consumer Financial Protection Bureau
Gail Hillebrand

Anyone can become a scam victim, but seniors are especially vulnerable to crooks and swindlers.

Fraud experts say seniors tend to be more trusting and polite, lonely and socially isolated, and they can often be easily confused by a clever con artist. Scammers target them because they often have access to large sums of money – their retirement funds.

“The crime of elder financial exploitation is widely underreported, and the consequences are heartbreaking,” said Gail Hillebrand, associate director for consumer education and engagement at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

Sadly, stealing from seniors can be very lucrative. It’s impossible to put an exact figure on the loss, but it’s huge – $2.9 billion dollars a year, according to a MetLife study of elder financial abuse released two years ago.

During a recent TODAY Money chat, Hillebrand explained how some of the most common senior scams work and how to spot them.

TODAY: Some of the come-ons sound so ridiculous, such as you won millions of dollars in a lottery or sweepstakes you didn't enter. How do the crooks make such a convincing pitch?

Gail Hillebrand: The crooks get you on the phone, they are professionals and they know what works by trying it on lots of folks. We say: "Speak up and speak out.” When you ask questions, the scammer might pass over you and try someone else. When you speak out, you can help the next person to spot and avoid the scam

TODAY: Romance scams are also a problem for seniors. How does that work?

Gail Hillebrand: The romance scam is someone pretending to be interested in you for romance or as a new best friend. After a time, the person starts asking you for money, small amounts at first and then more and more.

Bank tellers sometimes tell us that they see people coming in to make a big withdrawal and will try to warn the customer. If your bank teller says, "This might be a scam," it would be a good idea to listen to that warning.

TODAY: What are some of the common red flags to watch out for?

Gail Hillebrand: Here are some danger signs for avoiding fraud, particularly for seniors:

  • Claim of emergency: Someone says that you must “act now.” This is a danger sign. Trying to get you to act right away is a way to stop you from asking questions or talking it over with someone you trust.
  • A request for secrecy: Scammers may ask you to “keep it between us” or not tell family about the “opportunity,” “investment,” or “arrangement.” A request for secrecy can deprive you of the advice from family members that might help you to see what is wrong with an offer.
  • Someone asks for your bank account number: Any request for more info than is needed is a danger sign, especially a request for your bank account info. Of course, if you initiate a transaction and want to pay using your bank account, then you may have to give information. But be very wary of anyone who calls you and asks for your banking info.

TODAY: The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has a variety of resources to help and educate consumers of all ages. Where do we go?

Gail Hillebrand: Here are some ways to reach us:

You can follow us on Twitter, Facebook or the CFPB Blog.

Read the full chat with Gail Hillebrand for more information on senior fraud:

Herb Weisbaum is The ConsumerMan. Follow him on Facebook and Twitteror visit The ConsumerMan website.

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