BBB works to protect seniors

May is Older Americans Month and the Better Business Bureau of Minnesota and North Dakota is reminding seniors and their loved ones – as well as caregivers – of the importance of being vigilant in regard to scams.

Because seniors control more than 70 percent of the nation’s wealth, they are often targeted by fraudsters and con artists. However, simply by following some basic steps, such as taking time to consider all offers carefully, seniors can avoid becoming a victim.

“The scammers are out there, and they’ve got a pretty deep bag of tricks,” said Gary Johnson, outreach manager for the BBB’s Senior Program. “Our goal is to beat them to the punch and explain to seniors how these schemes work so that they can not only identify them, but use that knowledge to help others in their age group avoid them and also report them to law enforcement and agencies such as ours.”

The BBB warns against the following six scams that commonly target senior citizens:

• Grandparent scam – Victims receive a phone call from someone claiming to be a family member stranded far from home. They usually beg to have the matter kept private and say they are being held in jail, need car repairs or other assistance and money has to be wired to them immediately. These scammers may lace the conversation with correct references to other family members, increasing their credibility.

BBB advice: Remain calm and confirm the identity of the individual by calling him or her directly or verifying the story with other family members before taking any further action. Never provide scammers with information they can use against you. For instance, don’t venture a name when an unknown caller says, “It’s your grandson!” Instead, make them “fill in the blanks.”

• Sweepstakes and lottery scams – Typically, the victim receives a letter in the mail stating they have won a lottery or sweepstakes. The letter instructs the victim to deposit an enclosed check and then wire a portion back to cover taxes, insurance or administrative fees. While these checks clear initially, the money will be removed when the bank discovers the check is phony. The victim is out whatever they wired back to the scammers – often thousands of dollars. These scams are also attempted over the phone. Remember, you can’t win a contest you didn’t enter, and if something sounds too good to be true, it usually is.

BBB advice: Never wire money to someone you don’t know. You should never have to pay a fee to collect winnings from a lottery or sweepstakes. Also, participation in a foreign lottery over the phone or through the mail is illegal. Some newer scams ask people to purchase Green Dot MoneyPaks and then get people to share the number on the back, which allows scammers to siphon funds that have been loaded onto these MoneyPaks, leaving victims empty-handed.

• Medicare scams – Scammers often claim to be with Medicare and ask for personal information such as Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, credit card or bank account numbers. Potential victims might be given any number of excuses to provide this information including that an error needs to be fixed, that he or she is part of a survey or eligible to receive free products or can sign up for a new prescription drug plan.

BBB advice: Medicare will never call to ask for sensitive personal financial information. If you suspect fraud, contact your local police or the Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General at 800-447-8477.

• Bereavement scams – Scammers will go so far as to try to take advantage of seniors who have recently lost a loved one, such as a spouse. They call the widow or widower and claim that their spouse had outstanding debts that need to be paid immediately.

BBB advice: If you are uncertain about owing a debt when collectors call, always ask for written confirmation. Don’t be intimidated by unknown callers or letters claiming a debt is owed. Be aware of your rights under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act.

Deceptive professionals – While many scams targeting senior citizens are “faceless,” some scammers knock on the front door, claiming to be experts in their fields. These so-called professionals will lie about the extent of problems with your home or furnace, and then inflate prices in an attempt to profit off trusting seniors.

BBB advice – Find professionals you can trust by researching them at Report any deceptive offers to your BBB, local law enforcement and the state Attorney General.

• Investment opportunities – These schemes promise big returns but offer few details.

BBB advice: Beware of investment or money-making offers that seem too good to be true or use high-pressure sales tactics. If you have questions about any offers you receive, contact the BBB at 800-646-6222.

For more advice on avoiding scams visit