Although only 36 percent of Americans who reported that they were victims of Internet scams in 2014 were over 50, 50 percent of the recorded losses were from our age group. Americans over 50 lost $339 million last year to online scammers, according to the Internet Crime Complaint Center.
Criminals who send fraudulent emails claiming they're a business, a government official or even a love interest target those of us over 50 because they think we're an easy target. They think we may have a nice nest egg built up, we may be newer to the technology, or that we're reluctant to report the crime because we don't want to appear foolish or unable to manage our own lives. The ICCC believes only 15 percent of victims report the crimes to law enforcement and only 10 percent report them to the ICCC.
If an online criminal has stolen your money or identity, report them. It's the only way they will be stopped. The AARP Foundation's ElderWatch program helps individuals fight scammers.
But before it gets to that, here are five of the most reported Internet scams of last year and how to avoid them:
Government Impersonation Email Scam
Scammers sending emails posing as government officials or entities -- especially Attorney General Eric Holder and FBI Director James Comey -- were able to gain personal information costing people over 50 $6,067,072 in 2014, with an average of $1,450 lost per complaint. Fifty-eight percent of the complaints came from those over 50.
Ways to avoid:
* Remember: government agencies do not send unsolicited emails.
* Don't reply, open any attachments, or click on any links. They can contain malicious code that may infect your computer or mobile phone.
* Avoid filling out forms in email messages asking for personal information.
* Forward phishing emails to email@example.com and to the organization impersonated in the email. IRS emails can be sent directly to firstname.lastname@example.org.
* Delete the email.
The Intimidation/Extortion Scam
The intimidation/extortion scam involves repeated and harassing emails and calls notifying the victim that a loan is due and must be paid in full. The fraudster usually knows your personal information but will give little information about the loan. Victims are threatened with legal action, arrest and personal violence if they refuse to pay. While only 36 percent of last year's complainants were over 50, 58 percent of the money extorted -- $9,492,910 -- came from this age group.
Ways to avoid:
* Be cautious when dealing with individuals located outside the country.
* Research individuals to ensure they are legitimate before doing any type of business with them.
* Report harassing and threatening behavior to the authorities.
The Romance Scam
The romance scam is a particularly nefarious scam where people are contacted through a website, chat room, or social network by someone looking for companionship or love. This is a slow-moving scam, where intimacy is built up over time until the victim is emotionally attached. Then the criminal presents a convincing scenario -- such as a family tragedy or emergency -- and asks for money. Of the $86 million (yes, you read that right!!) stolen last year, 70 percent of that came from people over 50 and 59 percent of that -- $50,987,931 -- came from women over 50.
Ways to avoid:
* Limit the amount of personal information you reveal on social networking sites.
* Look for the following red flags if contacted by a romantic stranger online. They could be a fraudster if:
- They claim to be originally from the United States, but are currently overseas, or going overseas, for business or family matters.
- They immediately want to get off the web site and onto Yahoo IM or MSN IM.
- They claim the romance was destiny or fate, and you are meant to be together.
- Their spelling is atrocious, and their grammar is not consistent with their stated culture.
- They are not usually around on the weekends to IM.
- They IM at unusual hours for your time zone.
* To learn more about romance scams, you can check out RomanceScams.org.
Real Estate Fraud
Unfortunately there are nasty folks out there who are targeting those of us over 50 seeking affordable housing. Sixty-four percent of the $12,598,388 in financial losses to this prevalent fraud last year were by the over-50 crowd. Scammers re-post legitimate housing ads far below rental market value. They typically try to rush the transaction, request that payment be sent by wire funds through a wire transfer service, and may even ask you to fill out credit applications.
Ways to avoid:
* Be cautious of an individual or company who only accepts wire transfers, pre-paid cards, or cash.
* Be on alert if they email stating they have to leave the area quickly due to employment or volunteer work. Some claim they left the United States for missionary or contract work in another country.
* Pay attention to the AARP Foundation ElderWatch's simplest red flag: If something seems too good to be true, it probably is.
* Ignore the deals and stick with legitimate, affordable housing you find on GoldenGirlsNetwork.com.
The auto fraud scam varies but generally it involves a car posted on a legitimate website that is far under market value. The fraudster claims they must sell the car quickly and will not meet in person, will not allow an inspection and tries to rush the sell. To make the deal appear legitimate, the criminal instructs the victim to wire full or partial payment to a third-party agent and to fax the payment receipt to the seller as proof of payment. The fraudster keeps the money but does not deliver the vehicle. This is an equal opportunity crime: in 2014, every age group over 30 was equally affected, with 16,861 victims losing an average of $3,334 per person.
Ways to avoid:
* Make sure you are purchasing merchandise from a reputable source. Do your homework on the individual or company to ensure that they are legitimate.
* Obtain a physical address rather than simply a post office box and a telephone number, and call the seller to see if the telephone number is correct and working.
* Consider not purchasing from sellers who won't provide you with proper personal and auto information.
Bonnie Moore, 70, is the President and Founder of Golden Girls Network, the only nationwide network that helps mature adults find roommates and access the resources they need to make shared living work. She is also the author of How to Start a Golden Girls Home.
*This article first appeared on the Golden Girls Network blog.