Avoid Losing Your Holiday Cheer

Although scammers are working hard all year long to separate seniors from their hard earned money, the holiday season always seems to bring an uptick in both the number and variety of schemes.

We all get our share of junk mail:  Endless credit card offers, sweepstakes notifications and pleas for good old fashioned cash.  Once in a while we might also get a phone call asking us our opinion or for a donation to some worthy cause.  Ninety-nine percent of the time the mail goes straight to the recycling bin and the phone call gets an instant hang up.  Most of us are pretty adept at separating the wheat from the chaff.

Unfortunately, many of the elderly aren’t as skilled at assessing the daily avalanche of offers and requests.  The scammers and scofflaws of the world are keenly aware of this and target seniors with endless ploys to separate them from their money.  The statistics from this area are woefully outdated, but extremely disturbing nonetheless.  In 2001, the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging reported that seniors were losing over $40 billion per year to telemarketing fraud.  Additionally, the US Subcommittee on Health and Long Term Care found that even though seniors represent 12% of the population, they represent 30% of all scam victims.

There are many causes for the vulnerability of seniors to scams.  Seniors can be lonely and take phone calls from strangers at home; they are often on fixed or limited incomes and susceptible to “get-rich-quick” pitches when money is tight; they tend to be polite and not reflexively hang up the phone when someone asks for money or information; and they are often eager to accept help with things like running errands, taking care of their yard or house and paying bills.

What can be done to keep the predators at bay?  Well, I believe the saying goes, “the best defense is a good offense.”  And in this case, a good offense means education and awareness.  Almost all of us play some role with the elderly, whether it be a lawyer, health care provider, financial advisor or family member.  All of us owe a duty to help educate seniors and make them aware that if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.  Seniors also need to understand that in our modern world, giving out personal information can be very dangerous.  We should also be telling seniors that it is ok to have a little healthy skepticism, and if they have questions about something, they should “run it up the flagpole” with someone they trust.

We can also tell our elders about some of the most common scams they might run into.  The holidays bring with it , a variety of seasonal schemes, a few of the most popular of which are described below.  In general, if it seems fishy, take a step back and do a little research. The legitimate offers are almost never so time sensitive that you have to act right away.

Utility Scams

Scammers will call the elderly and tell them that their heat or electricity is going to be shut off if they don’t make an immediate payment.  During the cold weather months, seniors become especially worried about losing such essential services.  Real utility companies do not operate this way.  Multiple written warnings and shut off notices will be received before utilities are shut off.

Cold Weather Repairs and Contractors

Dishonest contractors or scammers may try to convince you that duct or chimney cleaning is needed or that your home needs to be winterized.  Some will go door-to-door offering “extra low rates” if you sign up for the work right there and then.  If you are approached in this way, get the solicitor’s information and tell them that that you require references before you hire anyone and that you might call them after you check them out.  If they are legitimate, they should have no problem giving you information about their business and letting you check them out.

Medicare 

Open enrollment for Medicare runs from October 15th through December 7th.  During and around this period scammers may pose as Medicare representatives in order to obtain personal information such as social security numbers.  Medicare will never call and ask for personal information.

Charity Scams

The holidays are a popular time for people to give to charity, both in the spirit of the season and for tax purposes.  Scammers often use this opportunity to solicit money for fake charities or as fake representatives of real charities.  As a general rule, don’t give out personal information over the phone or internet unless it is to a known, reputable group that you have contacted (rather than them contacting you).

The above examples are just a few of the unlimited schemes that can be used to separate seniors from their savings.  Although there is no doubt that the scammers will continue with their nefarious ways, if we all take the proactive step of talking to just one senior about being extra cautious when an unknown person asks for personal information or money, we can collectively work to keep the scammers at bay.

As always, we hope you found our newsletter to be informative and enjoyable.