Older Americans Face New Coronavirus Risk: Robocall Scams

Older Americans Face New Coronavirus Risk: Robocall Scams

May 19th, 2020 - Telecom, Identity and Protection

By Bill Versen, Chief Product Officer at Transaction Network Services

As the coronavirus pandemic has evolved and new data emerges, communicating the health risks to older Americans and their family members is priority number one. Making matters worse in this time of crisis, scammers are seizing the opportunity by trying to fleece senior citizens out of their money and personal information.

Already, we’ve seen a spike in robocalls targeting older Americans with promises of fake cures, testing kits, masks, stimulus checks and other services. Of course, financial scams targeting older Americans long precede COVID-19: Seniors lose an estimated $2.9 billion annually from financial exploitation, according to the Senate Special Committee on Aging. But the coronavirus pandemic has created a perfect storm of risk for seniors: fear, misinformation and confusion. US consumers have already lost nearly $6 million to coronavirus-related fraud this year, according to complaints amassed by the Federal Trade Commission.

In January 2020, Transaction Network Services (TNS) commissioned a comprehensive survey of seniors aged 55-80 to help determine who is getting scammed, why, and what can be done to prevent more seniors from being financially impacted. The stakes are high: 53% of seniors we surveyed agreed that robocallers tried to scam them out of personal information in 2019; and nearly as many (47%) said robocallers tried to scam them out of money in 2019.

Protecting seniors from financial risk posed by robocall and robotext scams requires more aggressive action across the entire ecosystem involved in robocall protection and oversight. Three areas in particular demand industry, carrier and government attention in the weeks and months ahead.

Expand scam awareness  

At a high-level seniors are fully aware that robocalls exist and that there is a difference between nuisance calls and higher-risk robocalls seeking to obtain their money and personal information. But seniors still lack awareness of specific scams in circulation – which strongly suggests that institutions which are frequently spoofed — such as banks and healthcare providers — must become far more aggressive in communicating scams to their customers/subscribers.

Forty-five percent of seniors claim they have received a healthcare-related scam call, while only 21% reported that their healthcare provider has sent them information on robocall scams. Similar discrepancies exist within financial institutions: only 36% claim their banks have called them about how to avoid scams. The role of banks, healthcare providers and government agencies becomes even more critical during a health crisis like coronavirus. These organizations need to over-communicate on scams early and often to protect them from evolving tactics.

Expand technology awareness

While improving awareness of scams is the first half of the battle, the second half is ensuring older Americans know that there are tools available to help.

Seniors are being targeted on both home and mobile phones. The 65+ demographic still use landline phones, and the percentage of adults living with only wireless telephones decreases as age increases beyond 35 years: 65.7% for those 35–44; 50.7% for those 45–64; and 29.2% for those 65 and over.

Better awareness of current scams will help, but technology must fill the gap. Broadening consumer adoption of robocall blocking and filtering apps can prevent scammers from even getting seniors to answer the phone. According to the TNS survey, only 34% of respondents are aware that their telephone carrier offers a robocall protection app – suggesting that the state of awareness and usage of these apps is low.

Expand the time horizon 

Service providers and enforcement agencies must anticipate upcoming event triggers so that individuals are fully prepared before robocallers strike.

A textbook example of this is the upcoming 2020 Presidential election and ongoing state primaries. TNS compared state-level robocall volume for the full week before state Democratic primaries to robocall volume in an average week and found nearly 7x increases in several states.

In short, consumers need a better understanding of what campaigns, candidates and political groups can and can’t do when it comes to this type of communication. While an estimated 106 billion unwanted robocalls were placed in the US in 2019 (about 325 robocalls per person), government, carrier and industry actions are starting to bear fruit. These efforts, in combination with increased awareness and education efforts to protect targeted seniors, will help ensure that the health threat posed by coronavirus don’t become a financial threat as well.

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