Skip to main content

Articles

5 Keys To Computer Safety

Securing your computer is one of the most effective ways to reduce your chances of being hacked or scammed online. Here are some of the best practices for securing your computer, accounts, and online interactions:

Use different passwords for different accounts: A hacker or scammer can do a lot more damage if they have access to a  password that also gives them the keys to all of your online accounts. While it can be confusing to keep creating new passwords for new accounts, it is one of the most effective actions you can take to stay safe online. To keep on top of your different passwords, a printed or handwritten list can be a good system; your passwords are relatively secure even when they are printed, as hackers or scammers are more likely to attack your accounts from afar than from within your own house. If you want a more advanced solution than keeping a list, password managers are the gold standard. 1Password7 and LastPass are two password managers that come highly recommended. And if your account is hacked,be sure to change your passwords for the account and for any other accounts that share the same password.

Authenticate: Authenticating means proving that you are who you say you are when you interact online. The most common form of authentication is two-factor authentication (2FA), which sends a confirmation to your approved email or cell phone before letting you log on to a website. If checking your email or phone before logging into a new account is within your technical abilities, authentication is an important precaution you can take to stay safe.

Think before you click: Everything your parents told you about what not to do with strangers also applies online. If a stranger sends you a link and you’re confused about its purpose, don’t click it. If a person you know sends you a link that is out of context or seems unlike something they would say to you, don’t click it (you can also reach out to them directly and ask if they sent you anything recently). If people ask you to send them money but you’ve never met them in person and you don’t know them through a business relationship, don’t send the money. Identity is much easier to fake online than off, so staying aware of the context of the message or link is crucial.

Only buy on secure websites: Most websites begin with http://, though increasingly some begin with https://. The “s” in https stands for “secure,” and that’s because https uses more secure technology to send your information. If you’re planning to enter your payment details into a website, confirm that it is an https:// site before providing your information. If the site is not secure but you still want to send money, give the business or person a call and see what other options you have.

Log out of public computers: Using computers in a library, computer lab, or community center is very common. These public computers are great resources, but since many people use them, it’s important to be extra secure. Make sure to always log out of your accounts after using a public computer and, if possible, wipe your browser history.

Report abuse immediately: If your account has been hacked or you realize you have been scammed, it’s very important to report what happened. While there are lots of best practices for reporting, make sure to reach out to any company involved in the scam, including  platform where your account was compromised, your credit card company and/or bank (if you lost money in the hack or scam), as well as relevant government agencies like the FBI and FTC. And remember, if the hack or scam occurred on an account whose password is shared with other accounts, change the password!

Additional Resources:


Reporting 101

Why Report

  • Reporting within 72 hours increases chances that banks are able to reverse a money transfer.
  • A police report serves as proof that a crime has occurred, and can help file appeals with insurance, creditors, and the IRS.
    • Some homeowners insurance covers identity theft; some renter’s insurance covers property theft.
    • Banks can put extra monitoring on your account in the wake of an incident.
  • Your report can help other people (like your neighbors) avoid getting ripped off.
    • The FBI and other agencies look at patterns in reported data when prioritizing investigations. 
      • Information provided in reports is used to help catch criminals.
      • Information from reports sheds light on patterns criminals are using in their attacks. This can help the FBI and law enforcement catch criminals more quickly in the future.
    • The AARP, some police departments, and other organizations send out scam newsletters, social media posts, and other communications detailing reported scams to raise awareness and help people protect themselves.
  • Your report can make you eligible for services. Some police departments offer services to scam victims, including home visits, safety training, identity theft intervention, etc. 
  • A report can help you recover your losses if the criminal is caught. This is most likely if the arrest is made in the U.S. and a federal or state/county criminal conviction is obtained.
  • Reports help ensure that more  government resources and attention are allocated toward fighting scams and hacks in the future.

Making Your Report Helpful

When writing your report, it’s important to think like a detective and relay financial information and tactical details about the perpetrator.

If possible be ready to share:

  • Dates and times of activity
  • Perpetrator’s financial information (bank names, account numbers)
  • Perpetrator’s IP addresses
  • Perpetrator’s email and account names (even if fake)

Managing Expectations Around Reporting

For most victims, there is little probability of getting money back (especially if an incident is reported more than three days after money has been wired), and it can be difficult to get any restitution and accountability criminally. The sad reality is that many transnational fraud scams are operated out of foreign countries, andU.S. law enforcement cannot conduct investigations or make arrests in foreign countries without special law enforcement partnerships in place.or countries where law enforcement partnerships and extradition agreements do exist, the process can take years.

In addition to reporting the fraud to law enforcement, it is important to set expectations with the victim about what might happen after the report. Tracking down the perpetrator can take months or years, and may never happen at all. But regardless of outcome, your family member’s report will help law enforcement and the international intelligence community assess the scale of elder abuse, and potentially detect patterns in criminal behavior that can help cut down on abuse in the future.

Checklist for After Reporting

  • Collect and save all paperwork that directly relates to the victim’s losses. This paper trail will be helpful if an investigation is opened down the road. If an arrest is made, your family member may be asked to provide verification to get recouped for their losses.
  • Protect electronic devices.
  • Research how the losses might be deducted from taxes.
  • Contact creditors (if applicable).
  • Notify financial planner or estate attorney (if applicable). These professionals can take steps to protect remaining assets.
  • Help your family member find counseling or support.
  • Explore other ways your family member can spend their days and nights. Keeping busy makes people less inclined to become involved with the scammers.  
  • Educate your family member about how to identify scams, and how to prevent/mitigate future exposure.

Common Barriers in Reporting

Occasionally, those trying to report crimes on behalf of a victim may find local and federal law enforcement agencies are unwilling to file a police report. They may say a report cannot be filed unless the victim is present in person, that they do not take reports on international scammers due to jurisdictional issues, or that crimes such as romance scams are “civil matters.” 

We would like to acknowledge the Los Angeles Scam Working Group and Bet Tzedek, whose research informed this article.

Criminal and Civil Justice for Perpetrators

In rare cases, victims may be contacted about an ongoing investigation of their case or charges that have been filed. Federal and state victim rights laws require that victims be notified of any court events, and of the order of restitution if convicted (in most cases).  Other rights may also incur that should be shared by those offices upon contact.

Civil Cases

If you believe the fraud perpetrator has assets, you may be able to recover losses through a civil lawsuit. Contact your state or local Bar Association for the names of attorneys who specialize in this area of law to determine if your case is appropriate for civil action. This normally would only apply for known perpetrators within the U.S.

Criminal Convictions

Restitution is an order by the sentencing judge, ordering a convicted defendant to pay identified victims for certain losses as a result of the crime. In many types of federal and state crimes, it is mandatory for a convicted defendant to be ordered to pay restitution. 

Unfortunately, as a practical matter, a convicted defendant who has no money or limited potential to make money may be unlikely to ever make meaningful restitution in a federal or local prosecution, particularly in fraud cases with many victims. 

In some cases, law enforcement authorities overseas who have enough leads may apprehend the scammers and seize property purchased using the money taken from many victims. There have been instances where law enforcement has been able to sell the property and allocate proceeds to victims and/or their families back in the U.S. However, in most cases, the federal and state prosecutors work to ensure that any assets owned by a sentenced defendant, can be considered for payment of court-ordered restitution. A federal order of restitution is enforceable for twenty years, from the time a criminal judgment requiring restitution is filed (plus the time incarcerated).  

We would like to acknowledge the Los Angeles Scam Working Group and Bet Tzedek, whose research informed this article.


Taking Action when Loved Ones are In Too Deep

Sadly, there are many cases where older adults do not (or cannot) realize they are ensconced in a scam. If you believe your family member is in that situation, there are a few avenues you can explore.

First, contact the person’s financial planner or estate attorney (if they have one). Victims may be more likely to listen to advice from their planner, attorney, or financial advisor than from a family member, especially if they have worked together for many years. These professionals may also help in reporting the crime and helping with tax issues that result from the fraud.

As a last effort to combat continued victimization, a conservatorship over the estate may be necessary. A conservatorship over the estate reassigns control over a victim’s finances. A conservator is appointed by a judge for the benefit of someone who has become incapacitated.  A judge is the only authority who can make the determination that an older or other vulnerable adult ,or “conservatee,” is no longer competent to handle his/her financial affairs. (Note that some states use the term “adult guardianship” in reference to conservatorships.)

Courts have broad discretion when determining who should be appointed as a conservator.  Although they generally choose a spouse, adult child, or other close family member to serve in this important capacity, the choice still belongs to the court. A court-appointed conservator of the estate manages the client’s finances, locates and takes control of the assets, collects income due, pays bills, invests the client’s money, and protects the assets. An independent professional, such as an attorney or accountant, may instead be appointed, depending on the circumstances.

Advantages of conservatorship:

  • Court supervision over the conservator is required to make vitally important decisions, which provides for greater protection for the conservatee.
  • A legal conservatorship provides protection against breaches of fiduciary duty or mismanagement of funds. Some states require conservators to file an inventory listing all the conservatee’s property with the court. The conservator must then continue to provide the court with accounts that reflect all transactions involving the conservatee’s assets.

Disadvantages of conservatorship:

  • The costs can be upward of $1500, depending on complexity and if a bond is needed. 
  • The time required for processing a conservatorship petition is typically between 2-3 months, though emergency or ‘temporary’ conservatorships may be considered in dire situations that require an expedited process.
  • A conservatorship usually does not end until the conservatee dies. The conservator may be in charge of the conservatee’s financial affairs for a very long time (or at least until the court determines the conservatorship is no longer necessary). 
  • Conservatorship proceedings are a matter of public record, which means the assets of the conservatee may also be made public.

Note: A declaration of capacity may not be necessary in situations when circumstances show that the proposed conservatee cannot manage his or her finances or is a victim of undue influence.

We would like to acknowledge the Los Angeles Scam Working Group and Bet Tzedek, whose research informed this article.

Social Services for Victims

In addition to financial hardships, scams carry emotional and psychological repercussions. It is often common for victims to fall into a state of depression or feel great shame and embarrassment, making it harder for them to ask for or accept help. Some victims may contemplate suicide and remain withdrawn and untrusting, afraid to meet new people or venture back on the internet. Still others want to believe they did not make a mistake. They resort to such attitudes as,‘Well, I already spent this much. Let’s see what happens,” and decide to continue hoping the ‘scam’ will end well, even while admitting it may be fraudulent.

To heal fully and properly, victims must find ways to replace the relationships they have developed with the criminal scammers with something else.

They may need a ‘coach’ to assist in avoiding revictimization or to fill in for the sudden loss of a fictitious partner who vanishes after the fraud is revealed. Family members should encourage the victim to engage in other social interactions, such as attending events at a local senior center, developing new hobbies, or finding peers in person or perhaps online or on the phone. Scheduling regular visits or phone calls from family members can provide a safe alternative and fill the void created when a relationship with the fraudster is ended.

For most victims, finding meaningful activities and connections with people and/or projects can make a great difference. These victims want “a reason to get up in the morning’ and something to look forward to. The challenge is to help them find that sense of purpose in their own lives, rather than give that power again to predators who will  manipulate and exploit them.

Numerous social services exist to support victims as they embark on this challenging journey, including Adult Protective Services, Victim Counseling, and local community services.

Adult Protective Services

Adult Protective Services (APS)  is a state-mandated service program charged with investigating situations involving elderly or dependent adults who are reported to be in danger due to abuse, neglect, exploitation, or hazardous or unsafe living conditions. The goal of APS is to allow a victim to remain as independent as possible. The elder or dependent adult may refuse services at any time. If an adult accepts assistance, social workers may design a plan with the client to meet his or her needs. Every case is different, with some needing day-o-day help with running a household and others requiring protection from financial or physical abuse. APS does not provide long-term case management but attempts to link each individual with appropriate community resources. 

APS can help by:

  • Providing 24-hour emergency response services, though requests may take several days before a worker can respond.
  • Mobilizing emergency personnel such as paramedics or law enforcement in high-risk situations.
  • Securing linkage and referrals for other county and community services, such as in-home supportive services or legal assistance.
  • Advocating for clients in a variety of situations, including negotiating with landlords, doctors, hospitals, treatment programs, and other social services.
  • Arranging for direct services such as meal delivery or transportation.
  • Coordinating and consulting with other providers to ensure the best possible service is received.
  • Providing referrals for services related to money management, out-of-home placement, conservatorship, home care, and more.

Victim Counseling

Counseling has been found to help some victims, particularly when the emotional attachment to a scam predator is strong or the shame/embarrassment impairs daily living. It can also be invaluable if a victim is depressed or expressing suicidal thoughts or actions. If a referral has been made by a doctor, counseling may be covered through medical insurance.

Call 2-1-1 to request referrals to local counseling programs, many of which are available on a sliding-fee scale or through an insurance copay.

If a victim of fraud expresses suicidal tendencies, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-8255.

Victim Support Groups

Using online, phone, and in-person support groups can be a very effective way for victims to ‘reconnect’ and find hope again.  

Victim support groups are still very new, so they are not yet offered across the nation, but such groups are available in select regions:

  • Los Angeles: Phone support groups are available for victims of internet romance scams who are age 50 and over. This group is facilitated by a social worker. 
  • Ventura County: The Coalition for Family Harmony offers 10 free counseling sessions and access to a phone-based support group for victims of romance scams (cyber intimate partner exploitation).

Local Community Services

Visit http://www.211us.org to connect victims with essential human services, including assistance in findingaffordable housing, applying for a job, accessing food pantries, and accessing other government benefits. 

Federal Services

The U.S. Department of Justice has a one-stop website for information, referrals, and resources related to elder abuse and financial exploitation: www.elderjustice.gov. The DoJ also has have a page for finding help: https://www.justice.gov/elderjustice/find-support-elder-abuse

We would like to acknowledge the Los Angeles Scam Working Group and Bet Tzedek, whose research informed this article.



What To Do After Identity Theft

Conduct a thorough review of the state of your family member’s finances:

  • Review bank accounts, insurance policies, investments, and annuities for changes in account ownership or beneficiaries. Rather than taking money while a senior is alive, some sophisticated scammers may try to switch beneficiaries or account ownership so that assets will legally transfer to them upon the senior’s death.
  • Review any wills, trusts, and powers of attorney. Watch for changes that may have been made under undue influence.
  • Sign your family member up for a credit-monitoring service, which will send alerts out for activity that shows up on credit reports. Note that this monitoring will not tell you when someone has withdrawn money from the account.

Federal agencies can help victims of identity theft. They also provide useful information about reporting a fraud what steps to take if your identity is stolen, and what your rights are as a victim of identity theft. See:

Fraud Alerts and Credit Freezes

Fraud victims have the option of placing a temporary fraud alert on their credit report. 

Fraud alerts ensure that creditors contact a person before any new accounts are opened in his/her name, or when changes are made to his/her existing accounts. Only people who have had their identity stolen, or who suspect it may have been stolen, may place fraud alerts.

To create a temporary Fraud Alert, contact one of the three major credit bureaus:

The credit bureau you contact will place alerts with the other two credit bureaus. After placing an alert, a victim is entitled to ask for a free copy of credit reports from all three major credit bureaus.

Fraud alerts are mainly effective in preventing new credit accounts from being opened in a victim’s name. They are not likely to stop thieves from using a victim’s existing accounts or from opening new accounts, especially those for which credit is not checked. Furthermore, businesses can still check a victim’s credit report when a fraud alert is in place.

There are two types of fraud alerts:

  • Initial Fraud Alert. If you’re concerned about potential identity theft, this fraud alert will protect a potential victim’s credit from unverified access for at least 90 days. You may want to place a fraud alert on behalf of a victim if their wallet, Social Security card, or other personal, financial, or account information was lost or stolen. In many scams, victims provide personal identifying information such as Social Security numbers, date of birth, bank account numbers, credit card numbers, etc.—often from the mistaken belief that the scam perpetrator is legitimate—in hopes of winning a lottery, assisting a ‘romantic partner’, or helping a loved one they believe may have been hurt or arrested overseas. Victims of such scams are vulnerable to being victimized through other scams i. Such scams often include identity theft, including the filing of tax refunds impersonating the victim. Taking steps to protect one’s credit and financial identity can be critical.
  • Extended Fraud Alert. An extended fraud alert will protect the credit of an identity theft victim for up to seven years.

Credit Freezes prevent potential creditors and other third parties from accessing a victim’s credit report, unless a victim lifts the freeze or already has a relationship with the company. Some consumers use credit freezes because they feel this option provides more protection.

We would like to acknowledge the Los Angeles Scam Working Group and Bet Tzedek, whose research informed this article.

Common Creditor Issues and Interventions

The intent for many criminal enterprises is to steal as much as possible from a vulnerable adult. This leads some older adults to borrow money from family and friends, maximize credit cards, obtain second mortgages, or ‘cash in’ securities and other assets. Scams can also include the theft of personal identifying information to enable future crimes.

In many cases, a victim may be ‘judgment proof,’ meaning their assets and income are so depleted that they would be unable to pay on a civil judgment against them. Fraud victims who are under pressure from creditors should consult with an attorney who specializes in consumer issues or elder/estate protection, or contact a legal aid agency if income and assets are too limited to hire a lawyer. An attorney can help draft a ‘judgment proof’ letter notifying a victim’s creditors that the person was a victim of one or more financial crimes/scams, and proving that the crimes were reported to the police as well as the FTC and the FBI via IC3.gov. The letter can also document that the victim does not have the income or assets to pay their debts.  If cognitive impairment was diagnosed, that may also be included in the notification, depending on privacy laws and the permission of the victim.

Non-profit consumer credit counseling centers can provide assistance in contacting creditors, renegotiating credit card and other debt, and providing financial counseling on options, including bankruptcy. Some bankruptcy counselors also provide credit counseling and debtor education. Furthermore, debtor assistance programs may be available from the state bankruptcy court.

Government programs can help refinance mortgages, which may be helpful in managing debt incurred by the crime. See www.makinghomeaffordable.gov.

Finally, bankruptcy itself may be a reasonable option to consider. Be sure to obtain legal advice if you plan to explore bankruptcy. Following are a few bankruptcy counseling and court resources:

Bankruptcy counseling and court resources:

We would like to acknowledge the Los Angeles Scam Working Group and Bet Tzedek, whose research informed this article.

Tax Implications for Scam and Fraud Victims

Victims can be considered liable for serious tax consequences for money stolen by financial predators. In such cases, victims and their family members are encouraged to consult with a tax professional or the IRS about if, when, and how such losses may be deducted as a loss. When doing so, it is helpful to have documentation proving the fraud has been reported, such as  police reports, as well as reports sent to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI) Internet Crime Complaint Center via IC3.gov, the IRS, and state tax authority.

The IRS has an independent Taxpayer Advocate Service (TAS) to inform taxpayers of their legal rights and assist with resolving complicated tax issues. Contacting them may help provide a tax relief remedy for victims, especially if 401K accounts were accessed or other taxes owed as a direct result of the crime.

TAS phone number (for general questions): 1-877-777-4778

TAS Online (for identifying local offices): https://taxpayeradvocate.irs.gov/ 


We would like to acknowledge the Los Angeles Scam Working Group and Bet Tzedek, whose research informed this article.

Avoiding the Money Mule Trap

Once criminals have stolen funds from a vulnerable adult, they may try to enlist their victim in a form of money laundering, which is illegal and potentially dangerous. It’s important to educate adults about money mule patterns and behaviors so they can recognize the signs and keep themselves safe.

Predators may enlist victims to launder money, electronic equipment, gift cards and other items in many situations. Common tactics / schemes include:

  • Work at home schemes – Victims answer an ad, mailing, or email offering the opportunity to work at home; they are then hired as a ‘reshipper’ or secret shopper.
  • Romance schemes – Victims are asked to help a new romantic partner they meet online by opening a bank account in the person’s name, which is then used to transfer money. The victim may also be asked to send their own money to alleviate their supposed ‘romantic interest’ with business or personal hardships.
  • Lottery schemes – Victims are asked to help scammers transfer money after they have “won” money in a sweepstakes or lottery.

Clearly, most victims do not realize they are being used in these situations, as they believe they are helping their phone or internet friend. Some victims are even asked to travel overseas to meet their contact. They may be arrested for helping to smuggle drugs or money across borders, or even kidnapped and their family extorted for money to gain their return. 

Victims used as money mules are often part of a larger scheme designed to extract money from an organization and/or other people. Unwitting money mules are increasingly used to open bank accounts and enable the transfer of funds that they don’t realize actually belong to other victims. Victims may also become mules by following the directions of a scammer to forward money that is mailed or sent to them by another victim (or by the scammer).

To learn more, see:

We would like to acknowledge the Los Angeles Scam Working Group and Bet Tzedek, whose research informed this article.


What Makes Older Adults Vulnerable to Scams?

Research has shown that older adults are particularly susceptible to scams and fraud. Factors that put them disproportionately at risk include:

  • Age Associated Financial Vulnerability  – A pattern of risky behavior related to money that places an older adult at substantial risk. Factors that can contribute include cognitive or emotional decline; impairments in vision, hearing, or mobility; serious progressive illness; and social isolation.
  • Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI), Alzheimers and DementiaMild cognitive impairment is used to describe older subjects with demonstrable cognitive impairment who have not crossed the threshold for dementia. This and other forms of dementia are associated with greater risk of financial exploitation.
  • Recent Life/Circumstance Change – Major life changes like the death of a spouse, retirement, or moving to a new home increase a victim’s vulnerability.
  • Loneliness and Depression – Suffering from depression or loneliness increases risk of financial exploitation. Those who are widowed often believe there is still someone out there who is a ‘true love’ and cling to anyone who shows commitment and interest.
  • Undue Influence – Exploiters frequently use flattery, trickery, and deception to persuade elderly victims to comply with their demands.
  • MedicationsSome medications taken for common illnesses can contribute to deficits in cognition/judgment. Certain medications taken for Parkinson’s have also been known to alter impulse control.
  • Chronic/compliant victimization Studies show the more money a victim gives to a scammer, the more likely they are to keep giving. It is common to see people repeatedly send money in the hope of ‘one day’ getting a long-awaited return. 
  • Existing financial vulnerabilityMany elderly citizens are surviving only on social security and/or small pensions or savings. Promises of grants, lotteries, or loans can seem like ‘timely’ financial help that is hard to walk away from.

These underlying issues largely lie outside older adults’ control, making it crucial not to blame those who fall prey to scams or fraud. Victims often find it difficult to share information about their losses out of fear of judgment or accusation. To feel safe broaching the topic, victims need to feel their family members will support them unconditionally. 

When supporting an elderly person who has been victimized by a scammer, invest time to find out the nature of the loss, gather as much information as possible about the scam(s) and perpetrator(s), and develop an accurate assessment of losses, loans, other debt accumulated.

Once the details are determined, help your loved one report the crimes and adjust their living budget. Then you can begin to deal with creditors and work to protect remaining assets and income, in addition to setting up safeguards to defend against future scams.

We would like to acknowledge the Los Angeles Scam Working Group and Bet Tzedek, whose research informed this article.