Pyramid Schemes and 14 Other Scams Targeting Baby Boomers

A license plate reads "scammin" on Sweet Dee's scooter from "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia."
A license plate reads “scammin” on Sweet Dee’s scooter from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. | FXX

If you’re one of the tens of millions of baby boomers out there, then you’re probably looking forward to retirement. After working and saving for decades, you hopefully have a nice nest egg — savings, investments, perhaps even pensions and Social Security — to draw from. But you’re probably aware there are people out there looking to take that money from you. And they’re devising ever more scams and schemes in order to do it.
Boomers grew up in a different world. For that reason, they might be more susceptible to scams than younger people. According to the FBI, “People who grew up in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s were generally raised to be polite and trusting. Con artists exploit these traits, knowing it is difficult or impossible for these people to say ‘no’ or just hang up the telephone.”
Scammers know their mark. But you can protect yourself by knowing what to look out for. There are dozens of scams and schemes out there, but some are more common than others. Let’s take a closer look at 15 scams, starting with one of the more trendy tricks out there: calls from fake IRS agents.

1. IRS phishing scams

There’s a good chance you’ve heard about this technique or even experienced it yourself. A scammer will call (or you’ll receive a robocall), pretend to be from the IRS, and say the target needs to pay up. Obviously, when the IRS calls, you pay attention. But this particular scheme has become so popular it landed on the list of the top 10 scams targeting seniors in 2017, according to a Senate committee report.
Keep in mind the IRS will never call you demanding immediate payment, nor will they call about taxes owed without first mailing you a bill. The IRS also never asks you for credit or debit information over the phone.

2. Money in the mail

money in envelopes
Mailed money is the promise of one of the more famous scams. |

Do you think a stranger would be willing to send you money in the mail? No? You’re probably right. So if you find yourself in a situation in which you’re expecting cash or a check in the mail, there’s a good chance you’re being duped. Postal or mail scams manifest in different ways, but usually they come with the promise you’ll get a payout. There’s also the chance that criminals will just steal your mail and the potentially valuable personal information contained within.

3. Medicare-covered supplies

A football player wearing a knee brace during an NFL game
A football player wears a knee brace during an NFL game. | Win McNamee/Getty Images

Many older Americans depend on Medicare and Medicaid to help cover health care costs, and that can make any offer “covered by Medicare” particularly enticing. But in many cases, these offers end up being fraudulent. You might see similar scams offering knee braces or mobility scooters, all covered by the government. A scammer might pose as a Medicare representative to get personal information and use what they get to bill the government and make off with the money.

4. Sweepstakes scams

smiling woman holding a tablet that says "You won!!! Click here! What could go wrong???"
A woman is overjoyed by a sketchy-looking “you won” message. |

You’ve likely seen pop-up ads or something similar saying you’ve won a sweepstakes. It might have said you have a cash prize or vacation waiting for you. You probably knew it was nonsense. But many seniors and boomers fall for it.
According to the Senate committee report, a popular version of this scam tells victims they’ve won the Jamaican lottery. There’s no reason you’d win the Jamaican lottery. Don’t fall for it.

5. Allowing computer remote access

a hand with black glove coming through laptop scren to steal wallet
A scammer gains remote access. |

There are a million ways to scam someone online, but one of the more widespread ways is by persuading people to allow remote access to their hard drives. From there, they can hold personal material and files for ransom or extort them for “services” provided.
“Fraudsters typically claim to represent a well-known technology company and attempt to convince victims to provide them with access to their computers,” the Senate committee report said. “Scammers often demand that victims pay for bogus tech support services through a wire transfer, or, worse yet, obtain victims’ passwords and gain access to financial accounts.”

6. The ‘grandparent’ scam

Grandparents with grandson and granddaughter
Scammers pretend to be grandchildren needing money. |

Perhaps the most insidious scam on the list, this technique is designed to hit you where it hurts: your family. The Senate committee report says: “In these scams, fraudsters call a senior pretending to be a family member, often a grandchild, and claim to be in urgent need of money to cover an emergency, medical care, or a legal problem.” If this happens to you, make sure to confirm you’re speaking with the family member in question before doing anything.

7. Counterfeit drugs

white pills spread out on a table
Some prescription deals are too good to be true. |

We go from counterfeit grandchildren to counterfeit drugs. As we age, our health care costs grow. That includes the medicine and drugs we need, many of which can be very expensive. You look for good prices, but sometimes those prices are too good to be true. If you buy drugs from a sketchy source online, you’re running the risk of getting burned.

8. Fake government grants

woman taking bills out of wallet
No, a government grant isn’t offering you free money. |

Another scam that’s picking up in popularity is yet another promise of free money from the government. In this case, it comes in the form of government grants. The promise of free money, of course, should set off alarm bells in your head. But many people fall for it.
“In these scams, thieves call victims and pretend to be from a fictitious Government Grants Department,” the Senate committee report said. “The con artists then tell the victims that they must pay a fee before receiving the grant.”

9. Check fraud

check and pen
Don’t be tricked into cashing a check. |

For millennials, the use of checks to pay for things is odd and antiquated. But many older Americans still use them. And according to the Senate committee report, check fraud is the ninth most commonly reported scam.
“In these cases, scammers trick victims into cashing or depositing a check and then wiring the money to back to the fraudsters,” the report said. “The victim eventually learns from his or her bank that the check bounced, and they are liable for the funds.”

10. Romantic cons

mail icon on screen
They might just want you for your money. |

Aside from the grandparent scam, this is the other incredibly personal and diabolical one. It works more or less how you’d expect: A con artist feigns attraction to someone (usually lonely and isolated) in order to get close to them, and then they clean out that person.
For example, after wooing the victim the scammer suddenly needs money for an unexpected medical emergency. The victim sends the money and never hears from the scammer again.

11. Investment schemes

man stacking coins
Don’t be fooled by an investment scheme. | Thinkstock

Ever hear of Bernie Madoff? He was caught — but there are plenty of others who are running plays from the same playbook. Investment schemes can come in a variety of shapes and sizes, but they have one goal: separate you from your money and leave you high and dry. If you hear a parent or grandparent talk about a fishy sounding “investment opportunity,” investigate further to see what’s really going on.

12. Pyramid schemes

Pyramid of glasses of pink champagne
A pyramid scheme might sound tempting at first. |

Pyramid schemes — often operated as multi-level marketing companies — don’t specifically target seniors. But promises of the ability to work from home and run your own business can be very enticing to bored, lonely people with a lot of time on their hands. Again, if you hear a family member talking about a fishy-sounding business opportunity, dig into it. Make sure they’re not getting taken for a ride.

13. Travel scams

Planes sit on a tarmac
Sorry, you probably didn’t win that free vacation. | Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Who doesn’t love a vacation — and a free one, at that? Retirees sure do, and that’s what makes seniors and boomers excellent targets for travel scams. Like other scams, these come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Some examples include the promise of “free” airline tickets, people selling fake travel vouchers through social media networks, and, as previously mentioned, sweepstakes wins with vacations as a prize.

14. Reverse mortgage scams

plastic houses on stacks of coins
Don’t let someone else tap your equity. |

Reverse mortgages have gained popularity in recent years. The idea is you tap your home equity to receive regular payments. It’s typically used by older people to supplement their retirement. Although this isn’t a scam in and of itself, it can be used by scammers to pilfer people’s money. There’s a lot of opportunity and potential for fraud, especially if you’re not sure what to look out for.

15. Bogus anti-aging products

hairdresser hairstylist female hand with hair mousse spray
Don’t expect a miracle product. |

This is another potential scam that isn’t necessarily targeting seniors, but older Americans are more likely to express interest in the first place. We’re talking about fraudulent or counterfeit anti-aging products, which can take many forms, including pills and beauty creams. It’s not just homeopathic products either. There are people out there selling fake makeup, fake Botox, and more.