Caution senior citizens: deception lurks around the holidays.

After Mary Grigsby’s husband died, she was proud of the fact that she was able to live alone and take care of herself, even though her daughter, Meg, was concerned as Mary entered her 80s. She still drove, gardened and played cards with her friends from church. Meg, who lived 120 miles away from Mary, checked in with her by phone regularly and took comfort in the fact that Mary’s neighbors visited often as well. However, Mary had been giving money to a “nice young man” who had knocked on her door one day soliciting funds for a children’s cancer charity.

Over the course of several months, the man had bilked Mary out of $5,000 — nearly all her savings.

Unfortunately, situations like this are quite common. Scams against seniors are becoming more frequent. The internet provides scammers more opportunity to gain access to personal information, but even without using a computer, strangers, and even family members or caregivers, are increasingly exploiting vulnerable older adults.

Why are seniors at risk?

As a generation, they are trusting. Many of them are experiencing isolation and loneliness, they may have significant cash on hand or within easy access, and many have memory or judgment lapses. Also, as was the case with Mary, they may be less likely to report being scammed due to embarrassment or fear of loss of independence. Interestingly, research shows that our ability to recognize
suspicious behavior decreases with age. Scams occur year-round, but tend to increase in the winter and holiday months. Although there are many, some seasonal traps to watch out for include:

  • Fake Medicare workers asking for personal information during open enrollment (mid-October to mid- December). Medicare employees do not do this.
  • Individuals going door-to-door looking for tree, roof or winterizing work and wanting payment in advance.
  • People pretending to be utility workers, threatening to turn off utilities unless payment is given in cash or wired immediately.
  • End-of-year tax season: “Free lunch” seminars promising get-rich-quick schemes or huge tax write-offs; charity cons for late-year tax deductions.
  • Online: phony gift scams; phony work- from-home opportunities such as secret shopper or selling vacation rentals; fake
  • Facebook contests aimed at gathering personal info; selling counterfeit or stolen items for inexpensive holiday gifts on Craigslist or other selling sites.
  • Delivery charges payable by gift recipient on demand. Reputable companies do not require the recipient to pay for gift delivery.

So what can seniors and their loved ones do to prevent fraud and financial abuse?

Tips for Seniors

  • Always be sure you know to whom you are talking. Ask for ID from anyone at your door.
  • NEVER give your personal information to anyone, even someone you know. Ask why they need it.
  • Never open your door to a person you don’t know.
  • Do not click on links in an e-mail. They can lead to bogus websites or contain viruses that will corrupt your computer system.
  • Check with the Better Business Bureau or police if you are tempted to enter a sweepstakes or contest that sounds too good to be true — it probably IS.
  • When giving to charity, visit give.org or charitynavigator.org to check the legitimacy of nonprofit organizations.
  • Never give credit card information over the phone and never give cash by courier.
  • Go through your phone service provider to get off “robocall” lists and call 888-382-1222 for the “Do Not Call” Registry.
  • To opt out of “junk mail,” go to dmachoice.org and optoutprescreen.com.

If you feel uneasy about any interaction or have already been “taken,” DO NOT hesitate to call a trusted family member, pastor, the police, or your physician. Reporting suspicions or exploitation is very important.

For Children

If you are the child, relative, or close friend of a senior, provide respectful oversight. Ask questions in a loving way. Raise your concerns without alarming the senior and offer to assist if you see any red flags. You may want to arrange for limited bank account oversight or set up an account with a low spending limit. If your relative or friend is repeatedly victimized, you may need to file for guardianship or conservatorship through an eldercare attorney.

Josh Brown, Director of Security at The Fauquier Bank says, “Many victims of crime…don’t tell law enforcement about being victimized out of embarrassment. Senior citizens have the additional fear of being isolated. When it is a family member or a caregiver that conducts the financial abuse, the senior citizen may fear losing the attention and care they receive if they go to the authorities. Having a ‘financial caregiver’ is so vitally important, as opposed to someone that just takes care of helping them physically. Separating the two can help prevent financial abuse through the process of verifying that the elderly person’s financial obligations are being met.”

Lieutenant George W. Southard, Jr. urges “If you are suspicious that it is a scam or believe that you are a victim, do not be embarrassed to report the scam to law enforcement. Because the scammers are cunning and clever, there is no shame in having been deceived. By reporting it, you will make it more difficult for them to deceive others. Please contact the Warrenton Police Department at 540-347-1100 if you want to report the scam.”

Mary and Meg’s story had a happy ending. A good neighbor of Mary’s called Meg after seeing the con artist at Mary’s door many times and Meg was able to convince her mother to discuss the situation. Although she has not gotten her savings back, the perpetrator is in jail and Mary is much more alert to potential scams.

This article originally appeared in Warrenton Lifestyle Magazine | December 2016