Common phone and internet scams and ways to stop them

Editor’s note: This post was originally published in August 2018 and has been updated.

Older adults are increasingly the targets of scammers who use deception and fear tactics to convince the elderly to send money or provide personal account information. Make sure your loved ones are aware of these common type of scams.

Common Phone and Internet Scams

Grandparent Scam

Scammers often target older adults. In this increasingly common scam, a fraudster calls a grandparent pretending to be a grandchild in trouble. The scammer will typically use the grandchild’s name and is usually crying. This makes it harder to recognize the grandchild’s voice or plays to someone hard of hearing. Scammers may also pose as a lawyer or police officer with the loved one that’s in trouble or jail.

These scammers plead for the grandparent to immediately wire money or overnight a check, money order, or gift card. They may also insist that the grandparent not tell anyone for fear of upsetting them. Many will immediately jump to the assistance of their grandchild and won’t ask questions until later.

Tech Support Scams

Tech support scams convince people to pay for technical assistance or programs on their computers. The scammers are typically pushy and pretend to know your problem, collect your money, and potentially ask for personal or account information. They may use a legitimate software company name.

If you didn’t initiate the call for help, don’t pay or give the caller any information. Never give out your account passwords. Only scammers ask for this information.


If you’re using your computer, a warning could appear on the screen: “Virus detected! Call now for a free security scan to repair your device.” If you call, scammers may try to remotely access your computer to run a diagnostic test, sell you worthless services, or install malicious software that can steal your personal information. This is another type of tech support scam.

Ignore it, and do not click on any links. Also, do not call, text, or email using the screen information.

Learn more at the Federal Trade Commission’s website in the article, Warn Your Friends About Tech Support Scams.

IRS Telephone Scam 

According to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), an imposter typically calls a consumer telling them that they must immediately pay the taxes they owe. Scammers can specifically target immigrants and say that if they don’t pay the tax bill or follow their instructions, they will face serious penalties. They will list consequences like arrest and deportation, shutting off their utilities, or revoking their driver’s licenses. Callers are frequently insulting or hostile to scare their potential victims. Don’t believe their threats.

The IRS will always send taxpayers a written notification of any tax due via U.S. mail. The IRS never asks for a credit card, debit card, or prepaid card information over the telephone. And, the IRS does not initiate contact with taxpayers by email, text message, or through social media to request personal or financial information such as PINs or passwords, credit card, bank, or other accounts.

For more information from the IRS about these scams, visit the IRS Tax Scams Consumer Alert Website.

Lottery and Sweepstakes Scams 

In this scheme, scammers call, email, or text consumers congratulations on winning a lottery, drawing, or sweepstakes, which the consumers usually have not entered. The scammer asks the “winner” for an upfront payment to cover processing fees or taxes. Or, the scammers may send a letter with an authentic-looking but phony “claim certificate” or “check” as an advance to pay the winnings. Bankers are generally aware of this scam and how to spot fraudulent checks. But if you deposit a phony check, the financial institution might hold you responsible for repaying the entire amount of the fraudulent check. This is true even if you sent some of the money to the scammer

Once it is apparent that there are no winnings, the victim may receive another call from someone claiming to be an attorney representing sweepstakes winners. In exchange for an upfront fee, the so-called “attorney” offers to collect the winnings on behalf of the victim. Needless to say, the “attorney” is working with the original scammer, and there is no chance of recovering the initial loss or the fraudulent fee that the fake “attorney” charges.

Tips to Avoid Phone and Internet Scams

Fraudsters can be very convincing in manipulating victims. If something seems unusual, don’t feel pressured to make any rash decisions without contacting someone you know and trust first.

  • Pay attention to warnings from your financial institution telling you that a request sounds like a scam. Your bank may have encountered similar scams in the past.
  • Scammers often claim an emergency, hoping you will respond quickly without checking out the situation first. If something seems unusual, check it out.
  • Before offering your help to someone who claims to be a grandchild (or any other relative/friend), be sure to telephone your grandchild or his/her parents at a number you know to be valid to find out if the request is legitimate. If a caller claims to be from an established organization such as a hospital, a charity, or a law enforcement agency, look up the number of the organization yourself.
  • Never provide your account passwords. Legitimate businesses will not ask for them.
  • Consider it a red flag if the caller insists on secrecy. Never allow anyone to discourage you from seeking information, verification, support and counsel from family members, friends or trusted advisers before you make a financial transaction.
  • You usually cannot win a sweepstakes or a lottery that you did not enter.
  • Never “pay to play.” A legitimate sweepstakes will not ask for money upfront. Be suspicious of any pressure to send funds via wire transfer or a pre-paid reloadable card.

There are many types of scams out there. Please share this information with your friends or family to help them avoid falling victim.

Information Sources

Federal Trade Commission Consumer Information > Scams 

IRS Tax Scams Consumer Alert Website

Warn Your Friends About Tech Support Scams (Federal Trade Commission)


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