As the busy shopping season comes to a close, law enforcement and consumer advocates are still warning shoppers — especially the elderly — to be careful of scams that tend to proliferate during the holidays.
Often, the scams involve some sort of sob story that preys on the emotions of the victim. The elderly are often targets because they are predisposed to help, particularly if they are told a family member is in trouble.
“Unfortunately, one of the biggest reasons is they [seniors] trust people,” said Detective Lt. Andrew McGurr of the Teaneck police. “A victim in a situation like this is usually someone that is trusting and wouldn’t expect to be preyed upon, especially when it’s helping family members, if it is something that they feel they can do and don’t think twice about it.”
Those “grandparent scams” have become more commonplace in recent years. The scheme typically starts with someone calling a senior citizen and pretending to be a relative, claiming that they are stranded and can’t make it home without some money.
The scheme includes instructions on where to send the money to help the relative.
That is usually the tip-off, said Detective Lt. Robert Bracken of the Clifton police.
In the last two months of 2015, the FBI’s Internet Complaint Center received 49,046 complaints from people at least 50 years old about some form of fraud or a scam. The financial loss tallied in the tens of millions of dollars.
In New Jersey in 2015, there were 3,509 complaints from people at least 50 years old reported to the FBI site, totaling a financial loss of $10.5 million.
“One of the reasons why AARP started the Fraud Watch Network is because we know that con artists are looking for people who have assets,” said Christine Newman, associate state director of community outreach at AARP New Jersey. “Seniors as a demographic typically have a nest egg, so they are targeted more frequently from scammers.”
Both the FBI and AARP issued fraud alerts last month as shopping began in earnest.
McGurr said it is not uncommon for a senior citizen to be targeted multiple times by the same people.
“They might change the type of fraud that they do while targeting the same person,” McGurr said. “It’s unfortunate. It’s almost as though their name is up on a board of people falling for a scam.”
It is estimated that one in five seniors has been victimized.
Some of the scams focus on people looking to give money to help others.
“It’s the season of giving, so if you’re going to give to a charity, check them out first,” Newman said. She suggested websites like give.org and charitynavigator.org, which include information about where and how a donation is used and the legitimacy of the receiving organization.
Others search for those who are looking for work, by creating fictitious online job applications that ask the applicants for their Social Security numbers or other personal information that can help the scammers gain access to financial accounts.
“They are putting up bogus job offers for the holidays,” Newman said. “We tell people looking for a job to never share [that information] and call the place to make sure the [job posting] is real.”
The scams are numerous — and creative
Order a gift for delivery? It could be stolen from your porch — a phenomenon now dubbed “porch shopping” — but provide the thief with more personal information about the recipient.
Purchase a gift card from a store? Even that isn’t foolproof.
“Con artists can write down or scan the number on a gift card,” Newman said.
To protect yourself, she said, buy gift cards directly from the store, get receipts, and verify the amount on the card before completing the transaction.
Bracken said there are red flags that can help tip off a potential victim to a scam.
“If anyone calls over the phone about a problem and you need to give them money, that should be a red flag,” Bracken said. “If you get a call like that, call the police. Don’t provide payment over the phone without verifying anything.”
Protecting against fraud is about being vigilant, police and consumer advocates said. The elder population may not be as tech savvy, but simple steps can help prevent their nest eggs from being fried.
“I would suggest that you utilize the credit reports available to you, and review all of your bank accounts regularly,” said Capt. Patrick Feliciano of the Rutherford police.
That’s a sentiment echoed by MasterCard communications representative Beth Kitchener. “By keeping an eye on your card statement,” she said, “you’ll know if an unauthorized purchase was processed.”