Seniors Smelling Rats: Avoiding 6 Common Scams, Schemes and Skulduggeries

seniors smelling rats

The phone rang in David McGuire’s home. He was delighted to hear the caller say, “This is your grandson!” What happened next, though, sent David’s heart racing.

The young caller said, “I took a trip to Mexico, and I’m in trouble. I’m in a police station. Can you bank wire me $1,500?”

“What kind of trouble are you in?” David asked, deeply concerned.

“It was a misunderstanding. Please, Grandpa. I’m scared.”

“Brendan, I love you, but I’m not going to do a thing until I talk to your mother about this.”

His “grandson” hung up.

Shaking, David called his daughter. When she heard the details, David’s daughter said, “It’s a scam! I just talked to Brendan on his break at work. He’s fine!”

When we hear of attempted scams on seniors, we are furious. After all, their health is delicate, their minds are not as clear as they used to be, and it is cruel that someone has tried to manipulate them into giving up their hard-earned, often-scarce money.

Many scammers target seniors for just these reasons. In addition to frailties that may affect their decision-making, seniors may be gullible because of the way they were raised. The FBI notes that people born in the first half of the twentieth century were raised to be polite and trusting. They were scolded to be honest and honorable. They assume that others share those social values.

The smart senior, however, must learn how to “smell a rat.” One way to do this is to be alert to some of the scams that are still in use, such as the following six.

  1. The Grandchild Scare Scam. As in David’s case, someone calls impersonating a grandchild who claims to be in trouble and needs funds. There are variations of this scheme. Sometimes the “grandchild” says he or she has been beaten up or injured and is in a hospital. The “grandchild” may or may not name an exotic or foreign location, but the connection may be bad in order to disguise the voice. David was smart and gutsy enough to insist on corroborating with Brendan’s mother, but sometimes the scammer will plead for secrecy, saying he does not want his or her parents to know. Some scammers have trawled social media to find families and can produce convincing personal information.
  1. The IRS Scam. No one wants a telephone call from the Internal Revenue Service. When someone calls purportedly from the IRS it is difficult to not be apprehensive. In this scam the senior is told that he or she owes back taxes. A stated amount must be sent immediately, the scammer says, or the senior will be arrested or face a lawsuit, bank garnishment or another disturbing event.
  1. The Medical Scam. Some fraudsters offer prescription drugs at a steep discount, particularly online. After payment, they may deliver something other than the prescription as a cheap substitute or not deliver anything at all. Some also offer health services, like free screenings, and then use any personal information the senior has given them to bill Medicare fraudulently.
  1. The Investment Scam. A young, respectful and polite financial advisor calls or pays a personal visit to a senior, treating the senior attentively and respectfully. The purpose is to sell unnecessary financial instruments and/or services. This person may convince seniors to invest in worthless schemes or products, also.
  1. The saddest of all the scams is where a grieving surviving spouse of someone who recently died is manipulated into buying funeral services or goods at a premium price.

Although most funeral homes are respectable, seniors are well advised to set emotions aside and comparison shop as much as possible during the final arrangements for a spouse or other loved one. It is important to know such things as the fact that there is no need to pay extra thousands of dollars to preserve the body underground. Nature will take its course regardless of how much is spent on preservation techniques, some of which actually accelerate decay.

It is against the law for a funeral home to sell unnecessary goods or services. The Federal Trade Commission states, for example, that there is no need for a casket or embalming services for cremation. The FTC also requires funeral homes to provide lists of specific goods, services, and their costs. Items such as urns or caskets can vary dramatically in price, so these lists should be used to comparison shop.

  1. The engaging in conversation with a partner-in-crime scam. Many seniors are lonely. A friendly person passing by may comment on a senior’s flowers or lawn while the senior is outside the house performing tasks. Unbeknownst to the senior, a partner of the friendly passerby is entering the house while the senior is distracted by the friendly passerby. The inside partner-in-crime steals jewelry, cash, small electronics, credit cards and other possessions that he can grab.

Scammers and schemers who target seniors represent unspeakable skulduggery. Yet smart seniors, by being aware of the more common scams, can develop radar for new and lesser known schemes when they come on the scene.




Fraud Target: Senior citizens. The Federal Bureau of Investigation. Available online at

Funeral Scams. Cemetery Depot. Available online at

Kircheimer, Sid. Beware of Funeral Frauds. July/August 2014. AARP. Available online at

Ribeiro, Ana Gonzalez. 7 Costly Scams that Target Seniors. June 11, 2015. Available online at