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Anatomy of a Scam


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July 9, 2012

It seems as though scammers are targeting older adults wherever they can – often creating elaborate mail, email and Internet, and telephone strategies.

That's why it's important for seniors to know how to spot a potential scam. Following are checklists for mail, telephone and computer that can help protect an older adult:


  • Consider a second set of eyes to look over bill payments and mail.
  • Don't send any personal information – Social Security or Social Insurance number, bank and credit card account numbers, phone numbers or address – through the mail to anyone who you don't know, no matter what they've offered or promised.
  • Never respond to a sweepstakes letter by sending a check to claim a prize.
  • Only send checks to charities with which you are familiar and that have been cleared through a second source such as the Better Business Bureau or Canadian Council for Better Business Bureaus.
  • Don't respond to requests to send a "deposit" to "get started" with a work-at-home offer or a pyramid scheme.
  • If you continue to get mail that is obviously a scam, take it to your local post office and the mail will be forwarded to the Postal Inspector.
  • Buy and install a locking mailbox, or set up a P.O. box.
  • Don't leave bill payment envelopes in your unsecured mailbox for pickup – take them to a postal mailbox.
  • If you're getting unnecessary mail, contact the sender and ask to have your name removed from the mailing list. To cut down on the volume of unwanted bulk mail, get off as many national mailing lists as possible.
  • Know when bank statements, credit card statements and pension payments are supposed to arrive each month. Consider getting statements online.

Download the Anatomy of a Scam Senior Mail Checklist


  • Don't give any personal information over the phone. Some scammers say they represent a bank or other reputable financial institution and falsely tell seniors that their financial information or credit card has been compromised. 
  • Don't trust that people are who they say they are. Some scammers say they are law enforcement officials who are trying to solve a crime that involves the senior, and they ask for personal information. Police always would contact a potential financial scam victim in person.
  • Be wary when someone calls unexpectedly, even if they sound like the good guys. The real good guys will not ask for sensitive information.
  • Beware of statements like: "You must act 'now' or the offer won't be good." "You've won a 'free' gift, vacation or prize." But you have to pay for "postage and handling" or other charges. "You must send money, give a credit card or bank account number, or have a check picked up by courier." You may hear this before you have had a chance to consider the offer carefully.
  • Don't buy over the phone from an unfamiliar company. Always check out unfamiliar calls from companies with your local consumer protection agency or other watchdog groups:
    • U.S.: Better Business Bureau, state attorney general, National Fraud Information Center
    • Canada: The Canadian Council for Better Business Bureaus, the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre
  • Obtain a salesperson's name, business identity, telephone number, street address, mailing address, and business license number. Then verify that information before you transact business. Some con artists give out false names, telephone numbers, addresses, and business license numbers.
  • Don't pay for a "free prize." If a caller tells you the payment is for taxes, he or she may be violating federal law.
  • Never respond to an offer you don't understand thoroughly.
  • Don't be afraid to stop or interrupt a caller if he or she is trying to sell something you do not want. Use phrases like: "I never buy anything over the phone." "I don't respond to telephone solicitation." "I'm sorry I'm going to have to hang up." Then just hang up.
  • If you already have been victimized, be wary of persons who call offering to help you recover your losses for a fee paid in advance.

Download the Anatomy of a Scam Telephone Checklist

National Do-Not-Call Registry
Scammers are targeting older adults by creating elaborate telephone fraud strategies. Protect your senior from these scams by registering their number on a National Do-Not-Call Registry.


  • Make sure your computer has all the security it needs and a security updating system. There are many anti-virus programs available, ranging from expensive to free, so check with a trusted source who is knowledgeable about computers
  • Guard your account information carefully. Be skeptical of individuals representing themselves as a foreigner or foreign government officials asking for your help in placing large sums of money in overseas bank accounts. Do not believe the promise of large sums of money for your cooperation.
  • Avoid sending personal information. Scammers might send out an email on bank letterhead that says there is a problem with the account and asks the senior to update information, password and account number.
  • Learn to identify spam and scams. Don't respond to emails from people you don't know or to emails you didn't expect to receive. Above all, don't give out personal information, including your Social Security or Social Insurance number and banking and credit card numbers, to anyone you don't know.
  • When making online purchases, don't give out your credit card number online unless the website is secure and reputable. Sometimes a tiny icon of a padlock appears to symbolize a higher level of security to transmit data. This icon is not a guarantee of a secure site, but it may provide some assurance; however, don't trust a website just because it claims to be secure.
  • Make sure you are purchasing merchandise from a reputable source. Do your homework on the individual or company to ensure that they are legitimate.
  • Obtain a physical address rather than simply a post office box and a telephone number, and call the seller to see if the telephone number is correct and working.
  • Send an email to the seller to make sure the email address is active, and be wary of those who utilize free email services where a credit card wasn't required to open the account. Check with the Canadian Council for Better Business Bureaus from the seller's area. Check out other websites regarding this person/company.

Download the Anatomy of a Scam Computer Checklist

For more information about protecting seniors from scammers, contact a local Home Instead Senior Care® office, or visit

Download a checklist to help scam proof your senior:

Scam defense tactics every senior needs to know. Get Your Free Fraud Protection Toolkit

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Thoughts and stories from others
  1. June 18, 2013 at 11:49 am | Posted by Caroline Hill

    There was a police representative in the news one day telling about grandparent scams and he mention a mail scam just starting. He gave a phone number to call him directly to report scams to him. I do not find that information. Probably not looking in the right place. My daughter got a mortgage reduction letter in the mail and it ended up being a spam. Very disappointing to her as she thought she had found some help for her situation. I would like to report this.


    • June 18, 2013 at 11:52 am | Posted by Cat Koehler

      I am so sorry to hear about your daughter's situation. This article will gve you the steps to take if you or a loved one has been the victim of a scam: Cat Koehler


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