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Elder lady using a tablet in her livingroom

Fraudsters using advances in technology to target seniors, say experts

Romance scams, income-tax extortion and online purchase scams top 2018 fraud charts, with older Canadians being prominent victims: Better Business Bureau

Elder lady using a tablet in her livingroomAs seniors become more advanced online, so too do the methods to target them, says Laura Tamblyn Watts, chief public policy officer at CARP (Shutterstock/Dragana Gordic)

Seniors may fall prey to the same scams as everybody else, but it’s why fraudsters target them that stands out from the crowd.

According to the Better Business Bureau’s (BBB) National Top 10 Scams of 2018, the top three scams in 2018 were romance (with more than $22.5 million in losses), income-tax extortion scams (with more than $6 million in losses) and online purchase scams (with more than $3.5 million lost). 

Seniors*, according to CARP (Canadian Association for Retired Persons), are particularly vulnerable to these—and they are less likely to report it, say experts. It’s what Laura Tamblyn Watts, chief public policy officer at CARP, refers to as “the silos of shame”.   

“These are areas [relationships, finance and interaction with governing bodies] that we typically silo out and we don’t share much information about with family members, friends, etc.” she says. “So, if they are exploited, you are less likely to tell.” 

Furthermore, when they do get scammed, older victims are often too embarrassed to admit it and some are fearful of losing their independence, adds Kathy Majowski, board chair with the Canadian Network for the Prevention of Elder Abuse (CNPEA). “The fear is very real and that can prevent people from reporting because they are going to be seen as not competent or not capable.” 

Fraudsters are more than aware of all this, Majowski says. In fact, they rely on it and  targeting accordingly, she adds. Here are three situations that make older Canadians more likely to fall into these traps.


Seniors often live alone, with fewer social outlets and a lack of proximal support systems, Majowski says. This can lead to feelings of isolation, loneliness and the need to connect with others.

Fraudsters in it for the long-term will tap into this vulnerability by forging relationships—romantic or platonic—using companionship as a pathway towards monetary requests. Those looking for instant gratification create panic, using scams like the common “grandparent” scheme—where they pose as a family member requesting large amounts of money for legal predicaments (i.e. bail money) —or newer schemes like calls from the CRA requesting immediate tax payments.

“They want to impart that sense of urgency because that means that person will not be thinking as clearly, they will not be going and consulting with a family member, or a friend or a financial adviser,” says Majowski.


Majowski recommends people take their time and do their research before acting. Does the sale exist, does the institution communicate this way, is the deal too good to be true or request outlandish?   

Jeff Thomson, spokesperson for the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre (CAFC) agrees, adding that ideally there are three steps to take—recognize, reject and report. “Take a step back and do your due diligence, consider what they are asking you,” he says. “Remember you are [likely] dealing with someone you’ve never met.”


More tech-savvy than ever, seniors are now using the internet for everything from purchasing groceries and managing finances to connecting with family and igniting love lives. According to Statistics Canada, internet use grew from 65 per cent to 81 per cent with 65- to 75-year-olds, and from 35 per cent to 50 per cent with those aged 75 and older, over three years (2013-2016).

“A lot of people, when they are online, [are] in their own home, their own living room, [where] they feel safe and secure and they are willing to do stuff they might not do in the real world,” says Thomson.

As seniors become more advanced online, so too do the methods to target them, adds CARP’s Tamblyn Watts. Scammers are using more sophisticated technology, such as data mining and microtargeting, to extract information and “get to know” their victims. They are often just as advanced—if not more—than those trying to stop them, she adds.

“This isn’t just the odd person,” she says. “It’s an entire community of practice out there that is continuously improving and usually a step ahead of the white hats [ethical computer hackers]. It is not just an episodic kind of thing. This is really a completely business-oriented organized crime.” 


Tamblyn Watts recommends exercising caution when posting personal information online, and thinking twice before broadcasting where you live, when and where you are on vacation, and any names you use in passwords. 

“In our very technological world, older adults are online with varying sophistication, and [fraudsters] have a good understanding of what information they can get [and use] out there,” she adds.


Older Canadians may not be aware of the signs of scams and may be all too comfortable handing over personal information, says Thomson. They are more likely to take a stranger at their word, particularly those posing as an authority, whether they are online, on the phone or at the front door. 


Know the red flags of scams, suggests Thomson, including urgent requests for large sums of money to be wired or sent as gift cards; being told to keep the request and/or interaction secret; or being coached on what to say when probed—from a bank, financial adviser, family or friends—when transferring funds.   

“It’s about educating yourself,” he says. “That is still one of our [CAFC’s] goals, to make sure Canada is most educated when it comes to mass-marketing fraud, identity fraud and the different types of scams that are out there.

“It is key to reducing the fraud and preventing it.” 


Stay armed against scammers with CPA Canada’s Fraud Protection for Seniors session—a free workshop conducted by a financial literacy volunteer that can be held at your local community centre, library or workplace.

Also, check out CPA Canada’s 2019 Annual Fraud Survey to find out how Canadians feel about fraud and what steps they are taking to protect themselves. 

*The starting age of a senior varies dependent on organization or government agency.