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  • Alan Fisk


Retired lawyer Barry Kelman was on his smart phone recently, renewing a TV streaming channel using his credit card, when a “Help” number popped up. Thinking he had to make contact to complete the transaction, the 75-year-old Oakland County resident called and gave his Visa card number to the operator on the other end. Then the phone line went blank. Suspicious, Kelman called Visa directly and found out that his credit card number had been used to charge $650 in Amazon gift cards. Just that quick.

Kelman is among millions of Americans over age 60 who fall victim to some type of financial fraud or confidence scam each year, at a cost of some $3 billion, according to a 2021 FBI report on what the agency calls elder fraud.

While Visa gave Kelman credit for his loss, many victims are not so lucky. Criminals gain their targets’ trust via computers, phones and the mail - or through TV and radio messages. Once successful, the FBI says, scammers are likely to keep a scheme going.

Why are the elderly popular targets? Dr. Peter A. Lichtenberg, director of the Wayne State University Institute of Gerontology, which studies aging, says he sees two major reasons: “One, they have more regular income than other age groups — Social Security, pensions, savings. And two, some of the changes with aging, like disability, loss, retirement, make older adults more accessible for certain scams.”

Additionally, says the FBI, seniors may not report fraud because they don’t know how to, or may be ashamed at having been scammed.


Common elder fraud schemes tracked by the Federal Trade Commission, the FBI and state attorneys general include:

Romance scam: Criminals pose as interested romantic partners on social media or dating websites to cash in on the elderly victim’s desire for companionship.

Tech support scam: Criminals offer to fix non-existent computer issues, gaining access to the victim’s devices and sensitive information.

Grandparent scam: Criminals pose as a relative, usually a child or grandchild, claiming to be in desperate and immediate financial need.

Government impersonation scam: Criminals pretend to be government employees and threaten to arrest or prosecute victims unless they pay a supposed fine.

Sweepstakes/charity/lottery scam: Criminals claim to work for legitimate organizations to gain the victim’s trust and donations, or claim they have won a foreign lottery that can be collected for a “fee.”

Home repair scam: Criminals go door to door and charge in advance for home improvements they never provide.

Family/caregiver scam: Relatives or acquaintances of elderly victims take advantage of them to get their money.

TV/radio scam: Criminals target potential victims using illegitimate ads about legitimate services, such as reverse mortgages or credit repair.

Some TV and radio ads may not be scams, but instead are misleading. Shari Smith, manager of the Medicare Medicaid Assistance Program at the Area Agency on Aging 1-B, which covers six Southeastern Michigan counties, says she’s often asked about Medicare Advantage infomercials featuring Joe Namath, Jimmie “JJ” Walker and other personalities.

“The issue with these commercials is not that they are dishonest but that they tell viewers they ‘may’ be eligible for services, a word people may not pay attention to,” Smith says. “Viewers don’t usually read the disclaimers on the screen — that specify that ‘extras’ are for people who are eligible for both Medicare and Medicaid, or may come at an additional cost. So, they sign up for a plan and learn that they aren’t eligible for extras, or have to pay for them. If they don’t have Medicaid, they’ll have to wait a full year to change their Medicare plan.”


To report elder fraud and try to recover lost monies, the main investigative agency is the FTC at, or 1.877.382.4357. Also inform your local FBI office, local police, and any bank, credit-card issuer and legitimate businesses that may be unwittingly involved. Give details, including:

  • Names of the scammer and/or company.

  • Dates of contact.

  • Phone numbers, email and mailing addresses and websites used by the scammer.

  • Where and how you sent funds, including wire transfers and prepaid cards.

Ultimately, experts warn to be cautious of any unsolicited phone calls, mailings and door-to-door offers. And never give or send personal information, money, jewelry, gift cards, checks, or wire information to unverified people or businesses.

Alan Fisk was an editor and reporter at numerous publications including The Detroit News and The New York Times, over 50 years. In retirement he has taught journalism at the University of Michigan and has written many freelance articles. He enjoys babysitting his two grandchildren and, with his wife, watching horse racing and baseball.

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