One of the biggest challenges we face with ageing parents and relatives is preventing them from being scammed. Millions of people are scammed in the UK every year, with older people being particularly targeted. Around half of people aged over 65 have been targeted by scammers, and those who live alone are more likely to be victims. Multiple new scams with increasingly sophisticated techniques have arisen in recent years, and scammers are continually developing new ways to steal people’s money. It can be hard to stay up to date with what to look out for so you and your loved ones don’t become the next victim. As well as financial loss, being scammed can also be detrimental to a person’s quality of life and wellbeing. In the worst cases, being the victim of a scam has resulted in older people losing their independence and requiring residential care.
Common types of scams
Some of the most common types of scams you and your parents should be aware of include:
- Fake software & tech support – Someone calls claiming to be from a major technology company like Google, Apple, or Microsoft saying you have a virus on your computer or device and need to update their anti-virus software. The caller either tricks you into purchasing software you don’t need, or convinces you to download software that is actually malware, allowing the scammer to access your banking information. This type of scam can also occur via pop-up ads on websites targeted at older people.
- Texts or emails impersonating trusted organisations – you receive a text or email purporting to be from trusted organisations such as your bank, a government department (e.g., HM Revenue and Customs or the Department for Work and Pensions), parcel delivery firms or companies like Amazon. These texts or emails contain a link to a fraudulent website that replicates a legitimate site, asking the victim to enter their personal and bank security information. When clicked on, email links or attachments can also install malware giving scammers access to the device.
- WhatsApp family member scams – “Hi mum” and “Hi dad” WhatsApp messages are a relatively new scam where a text or WhatsApp message is received claiming to be from a person’s child or grandchild, indicating that they have lost or damaged their phone, are in trouble and need urgent financial aid. Similarly, there are also scams where scammers call pretending to be the police, claiming the victim’s grandchild has been in an accident or involved in a crime and asking targets to transfer large sums of money to help their grandchild.
- Romance scams – scammers create fake profiles on dating sites or social media, with the aim of targeting and manipulating people into a fake relationship so they can extract money from them. Over time, these scammers start asking for money, often framing these requests as emergencies such as urgent healthcare costs or family issues. They can also lure victims into fraudulent investments, particularly those involving cryptocurrencies.
- Pension & investment scams – scammers call unannounced posing as financial advisors and offer people the chance of releasing funds from private pensions early, or encourage investment in cryptocurrency where they take a large transaction fee or steal the “investments” from their targets.
- Doorstop scams – someone comes to the door posing to be from a utility company to gain access to the property for burglary, or to do a survey where they take personal information.
- Fake prize draw scams – letters or emails arrive claiming that they have won a prize or lottery draw for something they never entered, but that they need to pay a fee and taxes to receive their winnings and supply banking information.
- Online shopping scams – scammers create websites selling anything from clothes to pharmaceuticals or beauty products. Either the products on the site are fake or the site steals your credit card details when you try to purchase something.
- Invoice scams – here scammers intercept in a large transaction you are already involved with, such as with a solicitor or real estate agent. The scammers impersonate the company or person you are dealing with and send fake invoices or account details, asking to make a payment.
Protecting your parents against scams
Many modern-day scams take place over email, social media and phones. Of course, it is important that your parent is able to continue to use these means of communication to stay connected, but there are ways to make it safer and less risky for them to do so from a scam prevention perspective, without heavily restricting their use. Asking older parents and relatives to be mindful of scammers and sharing the latest information on scams with them is helpful, but this can only go so far. While younger generations have grown up with advanced technology, older people are less technologically aware and their declining memories and cognitive abilities means information can go in one ear and out the other and they can be easily confused. In addition, older people tend to be more trusting of others, and often forget what they’ve been told in the moment as the scammers can be convincing and make them panic.
Dealing with the aftermath of being scammed is stressful and incredibly demoralising. What’s worse, if you’ve been the victim of a scam once, there’s a high chance the scammers will target you again. There are some terrible stories of vulnerable older people losing their life savings to scams, so it is really worth putting measures in place to reduce their risk of falling victim to these crimes.
12 tips to protect your parents against scams
- Stay informed of the latest scams and relay the information on to your parents. You can find out about the latest scams on the ScamWatch website, or stay up to date by following accounts like Friends Against Scams on Twitter. You and your parents can also sign up for Action Fraud alerts to receive direct information about scams and fraud in your area to your phone or email.
- Make it simple for them to not engage with a scammer. Give them an easy to remember, fixed sentence to repeat should anyone call them regarding anything to do with money or technology such as: “My son / daughter manages all my finances/computer issues”. Remind them that only criminals will try to rush or panic them, and that if someone is calling them out of the blue, it’s a huge red flag and they should hang up. Better still, tell them they should never answer phone calls that they are not expecting unless they come from someone on their contact list, but should let them go to voicemail.
- Create visible reminders or notes next to their computer, phone or by the door reminding them to be mindful of scammers.
- Strengthen their passwords and set up 2-step verification (2SV). Older people have a habit of using very weak passwords, and using the same password for multiple online accounts to make it easier for them to remember. According to advice from the National Cyber Security Centre, combining 3 random words that each mean something to you is a great way to create a password that is easy to remember but difficult to crack. You can also get them to use a password manager so they don’t have to try and remember multiple different passwords for all their accounts.
- Buy them a document shredder and help or encourage them to shred documents and letters containing personal or banking information instead of throwing them directly in the rubbish bin.
- Get rid of their landline or if they insist on keeping it, set up BT Call Protect which helps to prevent nuisance calls and register them for free with the Telephone Preference Service (TPS). Whilst scammers can still get around this with automated voice calls, it’s against the law for sales people from the UK or overseas to call numbers registered with TPS.
- Encourage or help them to set up a maximum daily transfer limit on their bank accounts, and ensure they don’t keep more than they need in their current account.
- Configure security and privacy settings on their social media (Facebook, Tik Tok etc) accounts if they are active on any of these channels, so that their personal information remains inaccessible to potential fraudsters. The UK’s National Cyber Security Centre provides guidance on safeguarding social media accounts from each of the major social media channels here.
- Contact their bank and utility suppliers to see if they can put enhanced security features in place, or register them for priority services.
- Secure their devices from malware and viruses by installing strong anti-virus software and network protection.
- Sign them up to a credit monitoring service. As well as providing access to their credit score, these services can notify you whenever your credit report undergoes any significant changes and send alerts in any instances when your financial and personal information appears on fraudulent websites.
- Encourage open discussion with your parents. Talking openly with your parents about scams and scamming, without judgement, means you have a better chance of spotting a scam in progress and makes your parent or older relative more likely to sound the alarm if they think they are being targeted.
What to do if your parent falls victim to a scam
If your parent or grandparent does end up falling for a scam, it’s important not to get angry with them or judge them. Even people who are technologically-savvy, cautious and sceptical can still fall victim to elaborate scams. It’s important that your parent isn’t made to feel incompetent or embarrassed, which might prevent them from telling you if they fall victim to scams in the future. The good news is that many banks and credit card companies offer zero liability fraud protection, as long as you report the scam quickly.
Once you or they become suspicious or aware that they’ve been scammed, you should act quickly to assess the full damage and notify their bank, credit card company or any impacted company, such as their pension provider. The longer you go without reporting it, the more the scammers can steal. You should also secure their online accounts by resetting all their passwords, and report the scam to Contact Action Fraud either online or by calling 0300 123 2040.
Help to stop the scammers
If you or your parents receive a scam email, text or letter in the post, you can help prevent others from becoming victims by reporting the scams:
- Forward suspected scam text messages to 7726 (it’s free). This will notify the network provider.
- Forward scam emails to firstname.lastname@example.org. It will go to the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC).
- Report pensions and financial investment or cryptocurrency scams to the Financial Conduct Authority
- Send scams received in the post to ‘Freepost Scam Mail’. Include the envelope it came in and a completed scam mail report, which you can download here.