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Phone Scams: A Guide to Protecting Seniors and How to Stay Safe

Close-up of an elderly person holding a smartphone with a protective case, wearing a light blue patterned shirt. The background is softly blurred, focusing on the person's hand and the phone.

Published: July 16, 2024

Updated: July 16, 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 seniors’ 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, seniors — 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 loss 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 are limited only by their imagination.  There are countless ways 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 from 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 create 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 due to the availability of voice cloning, which involves using artificial intelligence to clone someone’s voice 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. 

Voice cloning is easy to do: 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 undoubtedly make this scam 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 check the caller ID before answering. If the number is unfamiliar or 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 caller’s identity before acting. 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 evaluate 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, and for 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 help 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 can manage the Phone even though she 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”.  This feature 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 seniors from calling anyone other than verified contacts.

There is one exception to the RAZ Memory Cell Phone’s ability to block incoming calls from those who are not contacts: the phone suspends call blocking for 2 hours after the senior calls 911. This allows emergency services to call the senior.



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 from people 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.  Determined criminals can exploit these exceptions.

However, this feature has a much larger problem: 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 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, including 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 simultaneously 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 provide 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.

You are a Victim of Phone Fraud – What Now?

If you, or an elderly relative or friend, are a victim of fraud, it can be challenging to know where to turn for help.  For example, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau recommends you contact Adult Protective Services, your local police or Sheriff’s office, or your District Attorney’s office.  On the other hand, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) recommends you contact the Department of Justice’s National Elder Fraud Hotline, your local police department, or the attorney general of your state or territory, and that you report the scam to the Federal Trade Commission.

We recommend you contact the National Elder Fraud Hotline at 833–372–8311, as a first step.  The hotline is “staffed by experienced professionals who provide personalized support to callers by assessing the victim’s needs and identifying next steps. Case managers will identify appropriate reporting agencies, provide information to callers to assist them in reporting or connect them with agencies, and provide resources and referrals on a case-by-case basis.”  In other words, the hotline provides advice on what you should do in light of the facts of the case.

Many feel that reporting phone fraud is not worth it; there is a perception that only a small proportion of fraud victims recover some or all of the money they lose.  However, some do recover money.  Over the last several years hundreds of thousands of seniors have recovered millions of dollars due to federal, state, and local efforts. 

Reporting phone fraud can be worth the effort.