Senior woman looking horrified at computer monitor
(Credit: Westend61 / Getty Images)

Government imposter scams, whereby someone pretends to be a government worker to perpetrate fraud, was the top type of fraud reported last year to the Senate Special Committee on Aging’s fraud hotline, according to the committee’s 2022 Fraud Book, released Thursday.

A total of 9,100 complaints have been made to the committee — at 1-855-303-9470 or its online form — since 2015, according to the report. Other types of fraud high on the list for 2021 were identity theft, business and shopping fraud, robocalls and healthcare / health insurance fraud.

The release of the report followed a committee hearing Thursday about fighting fraud against older adults. In the spring, the Stop Senior Scams Act was passed to establish a federal advisory group tasked with preventing scams targeting older Americans by bringing together government, industry, advocates and consumers to develop model educational materials for retailers and financial institutions. 

The committee’s Fraud Book details the top 10 scams reported to the committee’s fraud hotline in 2021; 667 messages from across the country came into the committee’s hotline or website to report scams.

“While predatory scams have existed for decades, the pandemic has exacerbated this issue, as fraudsters preyed on fear and uncertainty surrounding the virus to scam seniors out of their hard-earned savings,” Committee Chairman Bob Casey (D-PA) said in a statement. “As scammers get smarter, it is vital that we combat this from all sides — from businesses and banks preventing scams in real time to seniors educating themselves with the annual Fraud Book.”

Rounding out the top 10 scams identified in the Fraud Book were tech support and computers scams, sweepstakes and lottery scams, romance scams, financial services impersonation and fraud, and person-in-need and grandparent scams.

Committee ranking member Tim Scott (R-SC) said the Fraud Book aims to stop those crimes before they occur by providing “meaningful resources” to those working to protect themselves and their loved ones. 

The Fraud Book also provides red flags to watch out for in each type of scam, steps to prevent and respond to fraud and how to report a scam.

A Spanish language version of the latest book is posted on the committee’s website.

In 2021, the top 10 scam types reported to the committee shared similarities with data reported by the Federal Trade Commission, with imposter scams ranking as the most reported category for both.

Older adults reported the highest losses per person, with those 70 and older reporting the highest median losses — at $9,000 each — to romance scams. Over the past five years, the FTC reported more than $1.3 billion in losses to individuals due to romance scams — more than any other FTC category. 

Phone calls were the main method used by scammers to contact older adults, according to the FTC, with one in four older adults connecting with scammers this way. Social media was another popular tool for scammers to reach older adults between the ages of 60 and 69, increasing from 3% in 2017 to 15% in 2021.

The top scam reported to the fraud hotline was the government imposter scam — also the top scam in 2020 — in which bad actors pretend to represent a federal agency and threaten a person’s benefits or demand money to pay taxes or fees. Under this heading, Social Security fraud —which topped the list of scams for 2019 — was the most reported type of imposter scam.

Last year, 27% of older adults paid a scammer using a gift card — the preferred payment method used by scammers — or reloadable card, according to the FTC. The use of money transfer payment apps also increased from 2% in 2017 to 10% in 2021.