The spirit of giving that so many of us share during the holidays can be a real highlight of the season; unfortunately it can also lead to trouble for those seniors among us who fall prey to the dreaded but inevitable phenomenon of holiday scammers. Senior citizens lose an estimated $2.9B each year to fraud, with much of that taking place around Thanksgiving and Christmas; virtually none of it is recoverable.
So what makes our elder population especially susceptible? Explanations range from the loneliness and isolation that some seniors feel (the perfect set-up for being duped by what sounds like a friendly voice on the phone); to diminished cognition, which can make it more difficult to pick up danger signs; to the simple generational deficit around tech and computer usage. If you feel that you or someone you love could be vulnerable, here are the three most common holiday scams to watch out for:
- Phony Charitable Solicitations: this one is huge at holiday time, when there’s typically a surge in charitable giving. Scammers often use the name of a real charity (or make up their own), so fraudulent calls can be tricky to assess. WHAT YOU CAN DO: research any unfamiliar organization through sites like Charity Navigator; and if you choose to donate, do so through the organization’s own website or mailing address. Never give anyone your payment information over the phone.
- Gift Card Scams: the scammer in this scenario usually visits a gift card rack, records card numbers, and tracks them via 800 numbers to find out when they’ve been activated. As soon as the card is active, they drain the funds. WHAT YOU CAN DO: purchase gift cards from the issuing store itself, and check for any signs of tampering, like an exposed PIN. Keep your receipts to track your actual balance until the card is empty.
- Malicious Email Links: the scammers’ goal here is identity fraud; so while they may not be taking your money right away, their endgame is just as dangerous. At holiday time, many of these phony links arrive pretending to notify you of a failed package delivery; others show up as a link to an electronic Christmas card or supposed special shopping deal. WHAT YOU CAN DO: don’t click on any links that are emailed to you, period; if you’re concerned that something you actually ordered didn’t make it to its destination, use the original confirmation number you received from the company and go through their customer service.
As a general rule, try to use major credit cards with fraud protection, research unfamiliar businesses before making purchases, and carefully check credit card and bank statements for suspicious charges. Watchdog alerts are available from AARP; head to their website to learn more. If you or a senior you know feel you may have been the victim of fraud, contact the US Senate Committee on Aging’s Fraud Hotline to learn your legal rights.