Protecting Seniors Experiencing Cognitive Decline: A Guide to Common Phone Scams and How to Stay Safe



Published: March 20, 2024

Updated: March 20, 2024

Scam calls and robocalls are a growing menace.  This is particularly true for seniors experiencing cognitive decline, such as from dementia.  Thieves take advantage of their trust, lack of comprehension, and limited familiarity with technology. 

This article addresses the following:

The Size of the Phone Scam Threat

The Federal Trade Commission estimates that in 2022, older adults — defined as those over 60 years old — lost a staggering $48.4 billion to fraud.  While online scams are generally far more common than phone scams, this is not the case for seniors over 80.  This group filed loss reports involving phone scams at greater than twice the rate that it filed loss reports involving online scams.  And the median losses from phone scams is $1,800, compared to $400 for online fraud. So, phone scams are by far and away the biggest fraud threat to older seniors, although certainly not the only fraud threat.

Common Types of Phone Scams

The schemes dreamed up by those trying to steal money from older adults is limited only by their imagination.  There are countless ways that bad actors attempt to convince seniors to part with their money. 
Here are some of the most common: 

The Prize or Lottery Scam

According to the FTC, about 44% of phone scam losses involving seniors were on prize, sweepstakes and lottery scams.  Similarly, the Better Business Bureau reported that lottery and prize scams were among the top scams reported in 2022.  In this scam, victims are informed that they’ve won a prize or lottery, but to claim it, they must pay fees or provide personal information. The promised winnings are nonexistent.

Grandparent’s Scam and Voice Cloning

In this emotional scam, fraudsters call pretending to be a grandchild in distress, claiming they’re in trouble and need money urgently. They often rely on creating panic and urgency to manipulate the victim into sending funds.  The FBI reports a significant increase in grandparent scams, with thousands of cases reported annually.

This scam is particularly prevalent and dangerous since the availability of voice cloning, which involves using artificial intelligence to clone someone’s voice in order to sound exactly like that person.  While in the past, the voice could have been a giveaway, now the person calling can sound exactly like a grandchild or other family member, making such scams particularly effective.  And voice cloning is easy to do.  Simply download someone’s voice from social media, and then upload it to a website that charges less than $10 to generate a clip of the voice that sounds identical to the original.  The ease with which this can be done will undoubtably make this scam ever more prevalent.

In February 2024, the Federal Communications Commission declared illegal AI-generated voices used to perpetrate robocall scams.  But don’t expect this to reduce the use of voice cloning.            

Tech Support Scam

Scammers posing as tech support agents call to inform the victim about a supposed issue with their computer or software. They may request remote access to the computer or ask for payment for unnecessary services.  The FTC received over 150,000 reports of tech support scams in 2022, with older adults being a prime target.

Educate your Senior regarding Scam Calls

Protecting seniors from phone scams is crucial.  Start by educating them about common phone scams and the tactics scammers use. Make them aware of red flags such as unsolicited calls, requests for personal information, or urgent demands for money.

Caller ID Awareness: Encourage seniors to always check the caller ID before answering a call. If the number is unfamiliar or appears suspicious, it’s best to let it go to voicemail. Legitimate callers will leave a message.

Don’t Share Personal Information: Emphasize the importance of not sharing personal or financial information over the phone. Genuine organizations will not ask for sensitive details like Social Security numbers, credit card information, or bank account numbers over the phone.

Use Call Blocking Technology: Help seniors set up call blocking features on their phones or install call-blocking apps. These tools can filter out known scam numbers and reduce the likelihood of receiving fraudulent calls.

Verify Before Acting: Instruct seniors to independently verify the identity of the caller before taking any action. They can call the official number of the organization or person the caller claims to represent, using contact information from a reliable source.

Encourage Caution with Unexpected Calls: Remind seniors to be skeptical of unexpected calls, especially those claiming to be from government agencies or utility companies. Scammers often use fear tactics to manipulate victims, such as threatening legal action or immediate service disconnection.

Seek Assistance: Encourage seniors to seek assistance from a trusted family member or friend if they are unsure about a call or feel pressured. Having an extra set of eyes and ears can help in evaluating the legitimacy of a situation.

Mobile Devices can Eliminate or Reduce Scam Calls

Some mobile devices can eliminate or reduce calls from predators.  Below is a discussion of how the RAZ Memory Cell Phone, iPhone, and Google Pixel can be leveraged to protect your senior.

RAZ Memory Cell Phone

A RAZ Memory Cell Phone allows caregivers to control who can call the senior and who the senior can call.  It eliminates scam calls and robocalls! 

The RAZ Memory Cell Phone is designed for seniors with cognitive decline, especially dementia, as well as for those seniors who require, or prefer, a simple solution; it is the easiest-to-use cell phone on the market.  It supports only voice and video calls, although text messaging will be available in 2024.

The Phone has no menu system!  It has one primary screen that shows contacts as photos with names underneath. That’s it. The photos are helpful to those with memory loss. To place a call, tap & hold the photo, and the call begins.   

Unlike the other phones, the RAZ Memory Cell Phone is controlled remotely by family caregivers. This is very useful if the senior and caregiver, typically an adult child, live in different cities.  The caregiver will be able to manage the Phone even though they may be hundreds of miles away from the senior using the phone. 

This “remote manage” capability is provided through an app called “RAZ Care”, which the caregiver downloads onto their personal smartphone.  The app allows the caregiver to add and edit contacts, including uploading photos. The caregiver can also manage many unique features designed specifically for seniors, including but not limited to, the following: 

  • Reminders to charge the Phone
  • An announcement that the battery is charging
  • Automatically answer calls after one or two rings
  • Showing the day of the week in the status bar
  • GPS tracking
  • Times of the day during which the senior cannot place calls
  • Special mode for low vision and hand tremors
  • All calls automatically to speaker
  • Phone answers automatically after 2 rings

Most importantly, there is a feature called “limit incoming calls,” which allows only contacts to call the user, preventing anyone other than trusted family and friends from reaching the senior.  In addition, unlike any other phone, the RAZ Memory Cell Phone can also be set up to prevent the senior from calling anyone other than verified contacts.

The only exception to the RAZ Memory Cell Phone’s ability to block incoming calls from those who are not contacts is that after the senior places a call to 911, the phone suspends call blocking for 2 hours so that the senior can be reached by emergency services. 

 

 

Reducing Scam Calls on an iPhone

A feature called “Silence Unknown Callers” can be used to protect vulnerable seniors from scam calls.  It’s not a perfect solution, but it will help. 

If activated, the iPhone will silence calls that are not in the user’s contact list.  There are 4 exceptions, however: (1) it will not silence calls from numbers whom the senior has recently texted, (2) it will not silence calls from numbers that the senior has previously called; (3) it will not silence calls from numbers that were in an email; and (4) if the senior places an emergency call, this feature will be disabled for 24 hours, which is good for safety, but means there’ll be a temporary lapse in spam-blocking capabilities.  These are exceptions that can be exploited by determined criminals.

However, there is a much larger problem with this feature: it sends calls from unknown callers to voicemail, and they are also displayed on the ‘Recents’ list.  As a result, a senior may listen to a voicemail message or look at the ‘Recents’ list and call the scammer back.  This vulnerability does not exist on the RAZ Memory Cell Phone. 

This is how to enable an iPhone’s built-in call-blocking feature:

  1. Open Settings
  2. Scroll down and tap Phone
  3. Scroll down again and tap Silence Unknown Callers
  4. Toggle Silence Unknown Callers ON

Addressing Scam Calls on a Google Pixel

The Google Pixel also has some powerful tools to prevent scam calls.  The user can select one of three protection levels:

(1) maximum protection,
(2) medium protection, and
(3) basic protection.    

When using the maximum protection level, a Pixel will screen all unknown numbers.  Unfortunately, Google does not define the term “unknown numbers”.  For example, are all numbers that are not in contacts “unknown”?   

If a call is from an “unknown” number, and the Pixel knows that it is a spam call, your phone hangs up on the caller.  On the other hand, if the call is from an unknown caller and the Pixel does not know whether the call is spam, the phone screens the call with the Google Assistant.  Specifically, the Assistant answers the call and asks who’s calling and why. If, based on the response, the Assistant determines the call is spam, the phone hangs up.  If it determines that it is not spam, the phone rings and shows you how the caller responded.  The user can answer or hang up.    

The challenge with this approach is that the senior can answer the call after seeing the caller’s response.  In addition, the entire approach of having calls answered by Google Assistant is confusing for a senior with cognitive decline.        

How the Wireless Carriers are Fighting Scam Calls

Mobile carriers provide additional anti-spam tools, such as Verizon’s Call Filter, T-Mobile’s Scam Shield, and AT&T’s ActiveArmor

These tools are not available for all customers.  For example, T-Mobile’s Scam Shield app is available only to its post-paid customers, although prepaid customers can activate some of the anti-scam protections offered by the app by dialing short codes.  In addition, not all devices can take advantage of the tools.  For instance, AT&T’s ActiveArmor is available only on Android devices that operate on Android 11 or higher. 

The spam protection offered by Call Filter, Scam Shield, and Active Armor is not perfect, but it is free.  So, there is no downside to using these tools together with the tools offered by the iPhone and Pixel. 

If you are trying to protect a senior with dementia, you will probably want to protect them to the maximum extent possible and block all calls from non-contacts.  The heightened vulnerability of someone with cognitive decline means you will likely want to protect the senior to the greatest extent possible!  However, only AT&T’s Scam Shield offers the option of sending every call to voicemail if it’s not from a contact.  As discussed above, the iPhone’s built-in features offer the same capability.    

For both of these, however, the senior remains quite vulnerable: the senior can still be victimized if they (1) listen to the voicemail message left by the criminal and call them back; or (2) call back the criminal through their missed calls list.

Conclusion

If you are interested in blocking spam calls but want your senior to continue to receive calls from non-contacts, there are several options, including capabilities that are built into your device and tools offered by your wireless carrier. 

On the other hand, if the senior has dementia, and you wish to block all calls other than those from contacts, the best option is the RAZ Memory Cell Phone.