Holiday Scams Targeting the Elderly to Watch Out For

Scams targeting the elderly are nothing new, but in recent years, they seem to have become more insidious—and more costly. True Link Financial estimates that elder financial abuse results in $36.5 billion lost annually. No one deserves to be conned out of their money and possessions, and the fact seniors are preyed upon is even more distressing.

The holiday season brings out the bad guys in force. Scams targeting the elderly ramp up this time of year because con artists know that seniors are both more vulnerable and more charitable with Christmas around the corner. Seniors can take steps to ensure they aren’t being ripped off, and adult children can be vigilant of their parents’ finances and interactions to hopefully catch potential scams before any money is lost.

Red Flags to Look For

Seniors are more susceptible to scams and fraud—amazingly, some legal—simply because of their age. Widows who may not have dealt with finances are often targeted. Seniors unfamiliar with the internet might not understand a scam is being presented to them. Also, scams targeting the elderly take advantage of the fact an older adult may be suffering from memory/dementia issues. Some red flags adult children should look for:

  • Any phone call asking for money: If you witness your parent take a call and the conversation turns to money, immediately ask for the phone or simply hang up. Checking your parent’s cell phone for a call log (and looking for unfamiliar or toll-free numbers) might seem a little heavy-handed, but the alternative is not knowing a scam has occurred or is in progress.

  • Unusual credit card charges: A common method of payment to a scammer is via credit card, and often, seniors never report fraudulent charges to the credit card company—or even recognize them. Again, you will need to be snoopy, but look at your parent’s credit card statements every month.

  • Bank withdrawals: Talk with your parent’s bank about what it does to protect seniors against fraud abuse. The best banks make a concerted effort to contact adult children if a senior is making a large, unexpected withdrawal or money transfer. You may want to consider adding yourself to your parent’s account to keep tabs on what’s being spent.

  • Credit reports: With your parent’s permission, order his or her credit report to look for any unexpected or unusual debts—a sure sign that a bad guy has opened accounts in your parent’s name.

  • For seniors themselves, beware of any offer that sounds too good to be true, and under no circumstances give out personal, credit card, or bank account information over the phone or in an email. If anyone contacts you asking for money—whether to fulfill a debt (that doesn’t exist) or as a gift for a charity (that also likely doesn’t exist), immediately tell your children, an administrator at the community you live in, or any other trusted friend who can take action.  

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Types of Holiday Scams

Scams targeting the elderly can occur any time of the year, but some are more prevalent around the holidays, including:

  • The grandparent scam: Someone claiming to be a senior’s grandchild calls saying he’s in trouble and needs money to be bailed out of jail or else he might spend the holidays incarcerated. The loving grandparent, perhaps hard of hearing and not exactly sure what the grandchild sounds like on the phone, wires the money to the scammer. What makes this even more insidious is that if the money is wired, another caller may pretend to be a police or corrections officer and ask the grandparent to send more money. And the grandparent scam doesn’t have to be for a “grandchild” in trouble—the scammer may claim he just needs money to pay for tuition, buy his family Christmas presents, or help buy a used car to get to school or work.

  • Disaster relief: The thought of a displaced family in need at the holidays can pull at seniors’ heartstrings and inspire them to send money. Unfortunately, many of the people calling on behalf of these victims aren’t from a charity at all. With the damage wrought from Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, expect these scams to be persistent through the end of the year. If you or a loved one want to help, seek out an established charity directly instead of sending money to someone who contacts you.

  • The IRS scam: Someone calls a senior ominously claiming to be from the IRS, saying the person owes taxes and to send money, via a prepaid credit card, by the end of the year to avoid possible legal action. The victim might not realize that the IRS doesn’t call about collections, won’t ask for prepaid cards, and will never threaten people with arrest.

  • Fake merchants: A senior might see an email or website that mimics a well-known merchant; any subsequent “purchases” go to the scammer, with nothing in return. And unfortunately, once criminals realize someone can be scammed, more offers like this will be sent.

How to Report Suspicious Activity

As already stated, scams targeting the elderly rarely are reported, as few as 1 in every 44 cases according to one report. Seniors may be too embarrassed to admit they were ripped off—so much so that they will go without meals rather than tell someone they lost money that would have otherwise gone to feed them—and others simply may not realize the fraud occurred. If you believe a scam has occurred, or if you are simply suspicious that someone is trying to defraud your loved one, report the incident immediately. Organizations that can help include:

Also, report any suspected fraud to the bank so it can take extra precautions for the account. And if you or your parent is living in a senior living community, report the incident to management as well. Communities are invested in the well-being of residents and will take steps to protect them from scammers.

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