July 29, 2020 Fraud

Avoiding Digital Scams

By Jeffrey M. Allen & Ashley Hallene

Scams targeting seniors are nothing new, but the type of scam can change from time to time. One of the best ways to protect yourself is to know what is out there and how to avoid it. In this article we will discuss some of the most common scams targeting seniors and how to avoid them. If you have been targeted by a scam, you are not alone. According to the American Journal of Public Health, around 5 percent of the elderly population suffer financial harm from some sort of scam every year. This equates to around two to three million people, and only represents what is actually reported. A large percentage of Internet scams never get reported.

Phishing Scams

Up first on our list is the scam known as "phishing." "Phishing" is defined by the Federal Trade Commission as “when a scammer uses fraudulent emails or texts, or copycat websites to get you to share valuable personal information – such as account numbers, Social Security numbers, or your login IDs and passwords.” It usually appears on your screen as a pop-up ad, fake website, or from a fake email account.


One of the most common forms of a phishing scam is malware, which usually comes attached to an email. The email will most likely ask you to download something attached to it, or sometimes the malware will download automatically when you open the email. If you download something like this, it could damage your computer or install ransomware that allows hackers to search through everything on your computer, such as tax files, retirement account and bank account information, and more. Easy ways to recognize malware include:

  • Suspicious sender’s email address: If you do not recognize the sender’s email address, or if it doesn’t quite match a company you use, then be on alert that the message could be malware.
  • Generic Greetings: If the message you are reading begins with some generic greeting, like “Salutations” or “Dear Customer”, then this may be a phishing attempt. 
  • Your username appears in the subject line or the attachment: You may notice that the Subject field of an email contains your username, or it may be blank. Malicious attachments may also contain your username in the filename. Both instances are rather unusual means of communications, since in reality we do not go around addressing each other by our usernames.·
  • Suspicious attachment: If you receive an email that contains a suspicious attachment (such as a file with the extensions .doc, .zip, .xls, .pdf, .ace, .exe, .com, .bat, etc.), then it may be malware.·
  • Warning, threat or sense of urgency: Malware email messages often attempt to create a sense of urgency to get recipients to act quickly, before they have had adequate time to think things through. Be very wary if an email encourages you to download an attachment in order to solve a problem.
  • Undisclosed or unlisted recipients: If the email recipient list shows either undisclosed or unlisted recipients or an email address other than yours, then it may be a malware email.

Beyond identifying potential malware, how do you prevent a malware attack from being successful? Best practices for preventing a malware attack include:

  • Choose strong, unique passwords: It is critical that you use strong, unique passwords for each of your accounts. Enable two factor authentication (2FA) whenever it is available.·
  • Watch out for suspicious websites: Malware attacks frequently involve spoofed websites. If anything about a website looks suspicious, be cautious and do not enter any sensitive data. If it is a website that you visit regularly, you will likely have notice before the company launches a new "look," so if something looks off, be suspicious.
  • Review software carefully before downloading: Prior to installing new software, look into the program and its reviews to ensure it is legitimate. People will often indicate in the comments or reviews whether the program they downloaded turned out to be malware.
  • Make sure all security patches and updates are installed: Install updates and patches as soon as possible to protect against malware and other digital threats. Turn on automatic updates whenever possible. These patches were created in response to a vulnerability that the software company identified. 
Example of Amazon gift card scam

Example of Amazon gift card scam

Jeffrey M. Allen

Winning Sweepstakes/Lottery Scams

Up next on our list is the ever-popular lottery/prize scam. This type of scam is disguised as a winning entry for a sweepstakes or lottery. These bright and loud advertisements may pop up on your screen proclaiming that you have won a certain amount of money or product for helping the website hit a milestone or because you were a random lucky winner. This goal of this scheme is to get you to share personal information, like bank account numbers or your credit card, to “wire” you the money. They may also say you’ll get mailed a check or package, and “all you have to do” is put in your credit card information to take care of a small shipping and handling fee. Pro tip: Like life, nothing on the Internet is ever free.

Counterfeit Prescription Drugs

These scams can pop-up as advertisements or emails, proclaiming to offer prescription drugs that work just as good and are cheaper than the ones you’re paying for now. These are, largely, fake. For one, the drugs may not even be real, and the people behind them are just trying to get your insurance information or credit card number. Alternatively, the drugs may exist but may be counterfeit, essentially acting as placebos. This is obviously severely dangerous to your health and potentially fatal. Seniors consume about one-third of all the prescription drugs in the U.S., despite making up less than 15 percent of the population. Scammers take advantage of this fact and the apparent need for cheaper prescriptions.

Sweetheart Scams

You meet someone online and fall in love before you ever meet in person (though the relationship could lead to meeting in-person). Then suddenly, they start to ask for money to help solve debt problems. This scam is especially bad for those who are isolated from other family members and looking for companionship. It also takes aim at those who may have recently lost a spouse and are in need of personal contact. In one instance, a woman whose father had met someone on a dating website fell hard for this scam. The woman on the dating website quickly began pouring her heart out to the 79-year-old despite never meeting him in person. Eventually, the woman started requesting money to support her and her daughter, and that “support” blossomed into $700,000 over the course of a couple years.

Employment Scams

This type of scam may sound unusual, assuming most seniors are at retirement age. However, some elderly people may not want to stop working as they age. The baby boomer generation is working more than any aging generation before them. Often they are looking for work past the retirement age, either for health insurance, a better retirement fund, or any extra income purposes. Scammers take advantage of this by offering job listings that are not real. They send out a solicitation requiring that you submit an application with your social security number and other personal information. Sometimes they can be convincing, offering a job that promises insurance and the opportunity to earn commission, but you can get hired and work for months before learning the entire thing is a scam. These jobs often appear as sales and telecommunications jobs. Some common ways to spot a job scam include:

  • You need to pay to get the job: One red flag to look for is any offer that guarantees to place you in a job once you pay a fee (supposedly for certification, training materials, or their expenses placing you with a company, or something along those lines.)
  • You need to provide your credit card or bank information: Never give out your credit card or bank account information over the phone or online to a company unless you are familiar with them and have agreed to pay for something. Remember, anyone who has your account information can use it.

We are just scratching the surface on digital scams, but there are some key take-a-ways to help you navigate:

  1. If an online deal seems too good to be true, it probably is. Investigate any company providing a “too good to be true” deal.
  2. Avoid answering emails or advertisements from unfamiliar sources.
  3. Delete unsolicited emails.
  4. Question offline any requests for donations you receive.
  5. Hover Before You Click. When you receive an unsolicited email asking you to “click here,” beware – even if it sounds like a real company.

The Federal Trade Commission offers guidelines for reporting any scams you come across, regardless of whether you were a victim. To find out how you can help by reporting, go to: https://www.usa.gov/stop-scams-frauds.



Jeffrey M. Allen is the principal in the Graves & Allen law firm in Oakland, California, where he has practiced since 1973. He is active in the ABA, the California State Bar Association, and the Alameda County Bar Association. He is a co-author of the ABA books Technology Tips for Seniors,Technology Tips for Seniors Volume 2.0, Technology Solutions for Today's Lawyer and Technology Tips for Lawyers and Other Business Professionals.

Ashley Hallene is a petroleum landman at Alta Mesa Holdings, LP, and practices oil and gas law, title examination, due diligence, acquisitions and oil and gas leasing in Houston, Texas. She frequently speaks in technology CLEs and is Deputy Editor-in-Chief of the technology and reviews department of the GPSolo eReport.  She is co-author of the ABA books Technology Tips for Seniors and Technology Tips for Seniors Volume 2.0