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How to Combat Robocalls and Scams Targeting Seniors

How can you combat the relentless tide of robocalls and scams targeting seniors? Just follow these tips and tricks to stay safe.

scams targeting seniors

The other night, I got a strange phone call. The number had my same area code, and a lot of other digits that were similar to my phone number.

“Hello,” said the voice on the other end. “This is Kate, I’m calling about a significant problem with your health insurance.”

Something didn’t seem right.

“Sorry,” I said, “This seems like a robocall.” I wasn’t sure why I was talking to a robot. Maybe I was too polite.

There was a pause on the other end of the line. Then Kate finally answered. “…No,” she said in a slightly monotone voice. “Do you want to solve the significant problem?”

At this point, I hung up. I couldn’t believe I’d almost been fooled. I was supposed to be savvier than that. But robocalls are designed to scare you into answering – into interacting in any way. These scams can be especially dangerous for seniors, who usually haven’t had as much experience dealing with bots.

Robocalls are usually scams targeting seniors. That’s because seniors usually have landlines (which are more susceptible to robocalls), they answer unknown numbers more often (not having grown up with caller ID) and they have less experience with the world of internet scams.

Internet safety was part of my elementary school curriculum. Sure, it was mostly about not getting kidnapped, but it had the side effect of teaching us how to spot scams. With just a little bit of background knowledge, you can be savvier about how to avoid robocalls and other scams targeting seniors.

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Why Robocalls?

The internet has made scammers and con artists a lot sneakier than they used to be. It’s also made it a lot easier to run thousands of automatically-dialed robocalls at once. Don’t have your number in the phone book? It doesn’t matter – that’s not what these phone farms are relying on. They can scrape phone numbers from almost anywhere, across the internet and beyond.

Think you’re getting more robocalls than you used to? That’s because you are. According to the Federal Communications Commission, spam robocalls have been on the rise over the last few years. From 2017 to 2018, the amount of robocalls increased by a whopping 58.6%.

Scammers want to lure you into revealing private information. They do this by scaring you into going along with their schemes. Robocalls prey on common anxieties and desires among Americans, like health insurance, student loans, Social Security, tax errors, interest rate scams and get-rich-quick schemes. Robocalls are one of the main ways that telemarketing scammers prey on their victims. They are depending on you being naïve and unaware of their tricks.

scams targeting seniors

How Do I Avoid Them?

Caller ID can be helpful when you’re trying to avoid phone scams targeting seniors. Be wary of unknown numbers. Not every unfamiliar number is dangerous, but there are some red flags you should be looking out for. Exercise caution when the number is unfamiliar to you or is simply marked “unknown.”

Many phone scams rely on “spoofing,” which means that the number you see on your Caller ID might not be the actual number that is calling you. Spoofed numbers will usually look very similar to your own phone number – down to minute differences like one or two different digits. Spoofed numbers are trying to trick you by throwing you off with a number that is familiar to you. They’re hoping you’ll answer – at least out of curiosity, if nothing else.

Not all robocalls are bad, however. Some robocalls could be your pharmacy notifying you of a new prescription, or an automatic system notifying you of an upcoming appointment at the dentist. If you have any doctors, pharmacies or other services that use automated calls, save their numbers in your phone so that you know they’re safe to answer.

It’s not the end of the world if you accidentally answer a robocall – but it does mean you’ll most likely get more of them. Whenever you answer a spam call, you are filed as an “active phone number,” which means that the scammers know there’s someone who will pick up at the other end of the line. Answering robocalls only begets more robocalls.

What if I Answer?

Answering a call doesn’t automatically mean you’ve fallen victim to the scam. When you pick up the phone, just be vigilant.

Phone bots don’t sound the same as they used to. Most of them sound almost like real people. Sometimes they’re prerecorded tracks from actors, making it even more difficult to tell.

The best way to tell if someone is really a robot is to be familiar with what modern phone bots sound like. Phone bots are often incapable of answering questions that their programmer hasn’t anticipated. That’s why, when I said “This seems like a robocall,” Robot Kate said “No.” I wasn’t technically asking a question, and “No” didn’t technically answer. Kate was almost there, but she didn’t quite make sense.

Phone bots will often take a couple more seconds than the average person to reply to what you’re saying. This is because it has to understand what you have said, then choose from a script what the best answer would be. They usually can’t keep up with the pace of a normal conversation.

Do not give out any personal information to a stranger who has called you unexpectedly over the phone. You don’t know what they’re planning on doing with it. This includes your name, birthdate, passwords and other sensitive information.

Avoid saying the word “Yes.” Scammers have been known to record your “yes” response and use it as proof that you agreed to something that you didn’t, like a credit card charge. Do not press any buttons that the bot might ask you to press (like to speak to a human being, for example). It’s a trick.

If you feel that a call is suspicious in any way, go with your gut. The best thing you can do to combat scams targeting seniors is to hang up.

Learn more about common scams and how to protect yourself. You can report phone scams to the Federal Trade Commission, robocalls and unwanted telemarketing to the Do Not Call Registry and Caller ID spoofing to the Federal Communications Commission.  

Have you ever gotten a suspicious robocall? What did you do? Tell us about your experience in the comments below!

Comments
  • I NEVER answer any call that is not from someone in my call list. They can leave a message if they want. I sometimes don’t even answer when I do know who’s calling. If they want to talk to me about something important they will certainly leave a message. A few people have asked me if I scan my calls and I say YES- I DO. There is no shame in being careful or busy.

  • Roland L.

    If the number is not recognized, then I let the answering machine get it. That way it gives me time to think about the message and whether or not I want to respond to it.

  • Consumer Reports recommends a number where you can add your own phone number to a list. Once set up a robot call rings once on your phone and is diverted to well deserved oblivion by this free service. If it is not a robot call it rings through to your system. I let them fall into my voice mail and 99% the rest don’t leave messages at that point. It works. Check out Consumer Reports for the details on this service.

  • Mary Susan W.

    the simplest thing to do is juts ignore these calls or do not answer..you will get thme even if on the governments “do not call” registry,so there isn’t much you can do..i get several a day on my landline and on my cell, and they all are from area codes I don’t recognize, and they all say unavailable or the like..a doctors office,a friend,a business you associate with, will all flag the callers name or id..

  • I got a call from “Apple” on my cell phone. This scam works since Apple adds their customer service number in the contacts list on their phones. Even if you block calls that aren’t in your contacts, this gets through. Most iPhone owners aren’t aware that its in their list of names. Apple never calls – EVER.

  • We never answer our phone and let it roll to the answering machine. If we recognize who it is we’ll pick up. We don’t have caller ID because by the time I find my cheaters to see the number it will have rolled to the answering machine anyway.

  • I was called from the “grandchild in trouble ” scam. I knew immediately it was not my grandson because he spoke in a southern accent, we are from MA, and called me “Grandmaw”. I am known as Grammy, or “the cool Grammy” If the caller doesn’t sound right to you they will say they have a cold. Another time I called a supposed help line for my computer problem. The person said my computer had been hacked and used for kiddie porn. He wanted a lot of money to fix it. It seems the scammer has caused the problem to get one to call. I said “no, I will go to the Apple store”. He hung up, I went to apple, was told it was a scam as I suspected , they fixed it,no more problem. The website looked legitimate, a professional woman I know did pay the money and the “problem” was fixed, she needed her computer immediately so she did it, which tells me that they do fix the problem they caused after they get your money. I don’t understand why people fall fourths scams, just because we are old doesn’t mean we are stupid, naive and too trusting some people always were and age didn’t change it.
    Thank you for warning us, these warnings should be widely distributed, every day, the only way to stop them is by educating the public.

  • Clementina H.

    I don’t usually answer a call from a number I do not know. However today waiting for a return call from North Well Health there was a call from North Shore LIJ which is affiliated with North Well. The female voice wanted to talk to me about my credit card, and the fact that they tried to contact me numerous times.????? What the heck is going on?? I almost feel like they are listening in on my phone conversations. Other calls are from same exchange as my cell number. Technology is great, and these people are very talented, WHY don’t they get a real job? A friend of mine answered this question. Because they make more money this way and they don’t have to pay taxes on it. How SAD. Mean while we suffer. Especially when waiting for an important medical call and your phone does not recognize the number. Could be life threatening.

    • Clementina H.

      OMG the same thing happen to me regarding the caller ID, However when I heard the recorded voice saying they tried to contact me about my credit card I hung up. Interesting thing was I was waiting for a call from Northwell Health. That was the only reason I answered the call At all as they are affiliated

  • It seems a wee bit irresponsible to say “Do not press any buttons that the bot might ask you to press…It’s a trick” without explaining HOW one is being tricked. What happens if one DOES press a button? What are the consequences? Please do not include warnings without explanations.

  • Mary N.

    I NEVER answer unless a friends name comes up. Everyone can leave a voicemail, which I can read a minute later and call back if necessary.

  • Dianne T.

    My home has been receiving for over a 2 week period calls from 9pm – onwards. We had to unplug our phone at night in order to get some sleep as these calls were coming in back to back all night long. No one said anything on the other end. They wouldn’t leave messages on the voice mail as well. I’ve had in my possession for nearly a year the “CPR Call Blocker V5000” This device blocks up to 1500 calls. It blocks International Callers/Withheld/Private Callers/Unavailable/Unknown Callers/Area Codes. Best device ever. Every time a calls come in that is unnoticeable you press the “Block Now” button. Once they calls are blocked they can not come through your line. So sorry it took these unbearable calls to start before we hooked it up. Works like a charm – Dianne T.

  • Your Aaa R.

    Look up Scam Baiting on YouTube. These individuals call scammers and expose tactics. One comment: NEVER log into your bank while remotely connected to anyone via computer (they have control over your computer: Team viewer, SupRemo etc.)
    Two recommended scambaiter youtubers I recommend: Jim Browning who has videos inside call centers. Kitboga who calls up call centers with various voices, a virtual computer, fake phone numbers, fake BANK! (Do not try this at home!) In family friendly manner he intends to waste their time so they cannot call others; and most find it very entertaining. Behind the humor, you will see methods used, hear scripts, see HOW they fake deposit “refund” into your account, recognize common ones. Frankly do what we would all like to do had we the knowhow! You can see how they prey on elderly especially. Highly recommend and AAA should interview Kitboga, BTW.

    Jim Browning is out of the UK but his intent is more to get information about scammers to inform authorities (and viewers) how the call centers function.

    PS tele health needs to learn to state name of company and caller name before saying, “Is [name] there? In these times more doctor offices are calling. They show often unknown. I first say “who is calling and who are they with”? They at first may get a little miffed. However, I explain after why and that is why they need to identify themselves and their business when outbound calling to clients.

  • John M.

    NO NAME = NOT ANSWERING! If someone or something leaves me a message and I deem they are ‘important’, I will add their name to their phone number for future calls. If someone calls you and it’s a real call or very important, they will leave you a voice message if you don’t answer. Never answer a call that says ‘Restricted’ or ‘Blocked’, and especially not from a state where you have no relatives. Any message that does not first identify the caller – or ask for you by name – and then threatens legal action, or something to do with Social Security, the IRS, or a credit card is usually just a scam. Ignore them.

  • Kama L.

    There are also scam jobs out there. DXC and Pinnacle took me through a whole fake interview before each asked me “how I would like to be paid” and for my “bank information”. Both are real companies but someone was spoofing them.

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