Look out for these scams over the holidays

The holiday season brings out the best in most of us. It is a time that encourages our generosity, our hospitality and our kindness to others. Unfortunately, the holidays also present an opportunity for less savory types to take advantage of our spirit of generosity.

According to the National Council on Aging, fraud directed at seniors is now considered the "crime of the 21st century." Every year scams cost seniors an average of $2.6 million. As a senior, you are an attractive target for two main reasons: you are likely to have a large "nest egg" in the bank, and you are also likely to be more trusting of strangers. By familiarizing yourself with the common tactics out there today, you can ensure that your personal finances remain in your control.

"The grandparent scam"

One classic scam involves a caller (or perhaps someone emailing you from a fake address) claiming to be your grandchild. The grandchild impersonator will claim to be in trouble and in need of immediate financial assistance. Some common claims are "my landlord is demanding rent and I don't have it," or "I'm stuck overseas and need you to wire money to me so I can fly back home." Often they will add, "Please promise not to tell mom or dad, they would kill me!" Be very suspicious of any call or email you receive to this effect. Hang up the phone and contact your grandchild's parents if you are still worried and need confirmation that they are okay. Never wire money to an unfamiliar place.

"Charity email"

Scammers often make phone calls or send emails claiming to be from legitimate charities. The email will prompt you to click on a link and provide personal information. Be wary of any email solicitations you receive over the holidays that claim to be on behalf of a charity. You can check the legitimacy of a charity online, by visiting www.charitynavigator.org. If you receive a call pressuring you to make a donation immediately, get as much information from the caller as you can and say you will make a decision later. Never give any personal financial information out over the phone.

"Free prize"

This highly common class of scams includes free prize offers, vacation bargains, foreign lottery tickets or inexpensive health care products. Whatever the "bargain," you will be prompted to send in a payment or private information of some kind to officially claim your prize. Sometimes a fake check is included in the mailing. If you try to deposit it at the bank it will bounce within a few days.

Tips for avoiding scams

-- Keep personal information secure. Always exercise great caution before giving out any private information -- this includes anything related to a credit card, bank account, insurance information or Medicare ID.

-- Never agree to a deal immediately. Telemarketing scammers will try to pressure you into agreeing to an immediate purchase or donation. They may urge you to act immediately or to make them a partial payment up front so you don't "miss out." One particularly low telemarketing company, called "Consumer Collection Advocates," claimed that they would help seniors who had previously been victims of fraud recoup their losses, for just a "20 percent payment." (The Federal Trade Commission has since put stop to that scam).

-- Learn as much as you can from the caller. Before giving out any private financial information, be sure you learn the name and phone number of the salesperson; the name, number and address of the organization; and the organization's business license number. Even if the telemarketer seems legitimate, tell them you will be back in touch. Check out the business yourself with your local consumer protection agency, Better Business Bureau, state attorney general, or National Fraud Information Center. Subjecting telemarketers to these hurdles is worthwhile and may ultimately save you a significant amount of money.

-- Remember that legitimate businesses rarely call consumers unsolicited. They are more likely to make use of mass media (television or internet) for advertising.

As prevalent as senior-related scams are these days, there are many incidences that go unreported. Reporting scams is crucial to putting an end to them, and in some cases getting your money back. If you suspect that you have been the target of a scam, report it. To file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission, call 1-877-FTC-HELP, or visit their website at www.ftc.gov. To inquire about telemarketing or mail scams, you can also contact the Massachusetts Attorney General's Public Inquiry and Assistance Center Hotline at 617-727-8400.


- Adam Johnson writes for Youville Assisted Living Residences, member of Covenant Health Systems, a Catholic, multi-institutional health and elder care organization serving New England.